Over the Rainbow at Waterbury’s Palace Theater

David Begelman

Certain ground rules in the theater are so elementary, they are forgone conclusions. Among these is the axiom that any fresh adaptation of MGM’s 1939 treasure The Wizard of Oz is going to fall far short of the caliber of this American film masterpiece.

That being said, what is there to say about the NETworks Presentations production of L. Frank Baum’s classic story, newly adapted by John Kane and staged by Nigel West at the Palace Theater? The answer is: plenty.

Ushered to his seat in Waterbury’s palatial Palace Theater, this reviewer saw it jammed with over 800 audience members. Not the least of the eager crowd was a generous supply of tots, either scurrying about the aisles or else carried by doting parents to their seats munching candy (when not sucking thumbs), and decked out in their Sunday finery. One 3 year-old was dressed as Dorothy, ruby slippers and all. Awaiting the treat in store for them, they were not disappointed after the curtain went up. Nor was yours truly. Expecting another dreary show for kids, he marveled at what was delivered on stage.

The surprising thing about this traveling production was not only its array of capable non-equity actors and dancers, but the visually stunning scenic and sound effects engineered by Lighting Designer Bob Bonniol, Tim McQuillan-Wright’s set and costumes, Shannon Slaton’s sound design, Second Home Productions artful Projections, J & M’s Special Effects, Nate Patten’s musical direction, and others in a team of collaborators on production values who continually put their best foot forward.

As a case in point, the tornado scene at the beginning of Wizard, up to Dorothy’s landing in Munchkindland was an optical and sound delight. A bit scary, it compared favorably to its treatment in the Victor Fleming film. Projected onto a huge scrim, Dorothy’s cabin whirled around to the din of a tornado horrific in its intensity.

Cassie Okenka played Dorothy, and her Scene 2 rendition of Over the Rainbow was a heartfelt interpretation of one of the most celebrated songs in the American canon of music. (And, unlike a generation of rock stars, sung on pitch!)

There is not enough to say about the individual characterizations of the Scarecrow, the Tin man, and the Cowardly Lion by Noah Aberlin, Chris Kind, and Jason Simon (whose sturdy baritone might well have been the envy of Bert Lahr, were he still alive). While they for the most part reprised the dialogue and songs we are all familiar with in the film, their portrayals were accomplished and satisfying.

Kudos go to Pat Sibley in the dual roles of Elvira Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West (Broadway has gone ape over witches lately, due no doubt to the inspired example of Margaret Hamilton in the 1939 film).

As the land-rich bitch murderously intent on dispatching Dorothy’s dog Toto (who quite appropriately took a bite out of her early on), Ms. Sibley was later suitably intimidating as the green-faced monster. She hurled bolts of fire at Scarecrow from thatched rooftops, cavorted with winged monkeys abjectly attentive to her every bidding, and met her dissolving demise in her castle at the hands of Dorothy wielding a mere pail of water.

Mention should also be made of the avuncular Professor Marvel and the Wizard of Oz, played by Robert John Biedermann, (reprising admirably the roles created by the unforgettable Frank Morgan), and performers Caitlin Maloney, Bruce Warren, and Bruce Warren as Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and the Emerald City Guard: all portrayals a sheer delight.

Caitlin Maloney also doubled as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, showering her kindness on Dorothy from a circular chariot that descended miraculously as if from the heavens—with, unlike Billie Burke in the original film, a solid singing voice to match!

The current version of Wizard added to the dialogue of the film. When Elvira Gulch makes off with Toto (a real trouper himself, and in this production always on cue when it comes to his darting entrances and exits), Dorothy berates all about her on the farm for causing her pet’s plight; and when Uncle Henry is informed about Elvira’s complaints to the county sheriff about Toto, he queries, “Was he sober?”

Sometimes the changes work, as in Scarecrow’s added number after Dorothy frees him in the cornfield. There is the addition of three singing crows, played with a jazzed-up élan by Robert Conte, Beau Hutchins, and Timothy McNeill. And the apple-tossing trees of the film are morphed into three leafy sirens, played by Lauryn Ciardullo, Jessa Rose, and Sara Ruzicka. The threesome goes on the make for Scarecrow with suggestive bumps and grinds, in preference to merely grousing in the forest.

At other times, the additions strike a discordant note, like the chorus of ballet dancers who appear when Dorothy and her friends are on the way to Emerald City (also a green delight in this production). Pirouettes and pas de deux around the drowsy foursome in poppy fields by couples seemingly recruited from a ballet corps seems oddly out of keeping with the intended atmosphere of bedevilment.

But make no mistake about it: this two and a half hour show is not to be missed, even if your exposure to the MGM film has been a repeated affair. And take your kids with you, ruby slippers and all.

The Wizard of Oz plays at the Palace Theater, 100 east Main Street, Waterbury, CT 06702, during the months of November and December. Matinees are at 1:00 PM, and evening performances at 6:30 PM. Reservations may be made by calling the box office at 203.755.8483.

This review will be published in New Fairfield’s Citizen News and on the website of The Connecticut Critics Circle.

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