Farmer's Branch — Talk about “Over the Rainbow.” The Firehouse Theatre in Farmers Branch has conjured a dedicated, enthusiastic audience that continues to radiate to Carrollton, Dallas and beyond, pulling award-winning veteran directors and actors from the rich talent in the metroplex and teaming their expertise with the buoyant, eager youngsters in the community. The vibe at an opening night is a happy shimmer of proud kinfolks and expectant newcomers who’ve learned that Firehouse delivers a professional production — and then some.
The Wizard of Oz is a perfect show for Firehouse. The cast is strong, and the clear delight of 10 sharp, adorable Munchkins, first- through sixth-graders, makes us feel the joy of theater that starts as children. When they sing “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” I felt fresh hope for the core values of our country, as our elected officials put truth on trial in Washington D.C.
The musical takes us to the land of Oz, invented by L. Frank Baum in his classic turn-of-the century story, and delighting kids and parents alike in the indelible 1939 movie version starring Judy Garland. Since then, we’ve seen the 1978 film The Wiz, and the best-selling novel turned hit Broadway musical, Wicked. The characters in this tale keep spawning beloved offspring.
Firehouse Artistic Director Derek Whitener directs the inspiring fantasy with easy swiftness. Music Director/pianist Mark Mullino and his eight-member orchestra, sitting stage right throughout, let everybody see how fiddles, reeds and strings bring the familiar Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harberg tunes to life in the overture, and nimbly accompany the singers as they journey to the Emerald City. Herbert Stothart wrote the background music and John Kane wrote the book for the stage adaptation of the film.
The show mirrors the film, for the most part, and set designer/choreographer Brandon Tijerina opens up the arena stage for lots of energetic ensemble numbers, laying down a bright yellow brick road right at stage-edge. Guests in the front row can almost touch the fabled trio of characters when they sing “We’re Off to See the Wizard.”
Lighting designer/projectionist Kenzie Flynn keeps us located in time and space by filling the huge screen at the back of the stage first with black and white images of a barn in a Kansas corn field, and later with brightly colored flower fields and dazzling green skylines as our characters approach Oz.
The heart of the show, of course, is in the beloved questing characters, and the Firehouse cast does not disappoint. Mezzo Lauren Scott’s wistful, full-throated Dorothy is not only a strong stage singer, but an alluring actor whose deep affection in the play for her real-life aunt and uncle and her fantasy travel mates glues the show’s theme of loving family and friends firmly in place. She opens the show with a singular, pensive rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” that we want to follow.
Jason Craig West is a limber dancer and a hapless, charming Scarecrow, traveling to Oz and hoping the Wizard will give him the wit to outsmart the crows who taunt him. “If I Only Had a Brain” has my favorite rhyme in the show:
With the thoughts I’d be thinkin’
I could be another Lincoln
If I only had a brain.
Ryan Michael Friedman is the Tin Man, terrified of rusting in his metal body and tilted funnel head, and singing soulfully of how he’d “be kinda human” “If I Only Had a Heart.”
Jason Philip Solis is all trembling mane and switching tail as The Cowardly Lion, transformed from the helpful, uncertain farmhand Zeke. His eye-rolling, anxious delivery of “If I Only Had the Nerve” steals the show, bringing applause from everybody, especially the two cheering kids sitting next to me.
Hilary Evitt Allen is a loving Auntie Em and glowing good witch Glenda, and Caroline Rivera is gloriously scary in green makeup and vengeful glare as the mean neighbor and Wicked Witch of the West.
Kris Allen adroitly handles the triple roles of Dorothy’s Uncle Henry, Professor Marvel the smooth-talking voice-over man at the Emerald City headquarters, and the formidably fierce Wizard himself. The perfectly timed shifts of screen projections, door openings and costume changes makes it all happen like magic. And that’s what we expect in a show with a conjurer in charge of the outcome.
The big 25-member cast includes four male and female ensemble dancers and singers, knocking it off the stage in the finale reprise of “Over the Rainbow” and “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.”
Victor Newman Brockwell’s well-fitted costumes effectively replicate the movie version we know by heart, with Dorothy in her blue checks and her fellow pilgrims outfitted in appropriate hay, skins and dully gleaming metal.
The production moves so swiftly and the cast members are so engaging, the two-hour show goes by before you can say, “If ever a wizardly wiz there was.” It’s a nice show for singing along, although I try to keep such impulses to a soft whisper when hearing happy familiar songs.
Maybe there’s no place like home, but Firehouse Theatre’s Oz is a great place to visit.