Fort Worth — Lions, and tigers, and bears…oh, my.
A girl from Kansas—and her little dog, too.
Does anyone not know what I’m talking about?
Big folks and little ones were singing in their seats at the opening-night performance of Casa Mañana Children's Theatre’s hummable, high-energy production of The Wizard of Oz. The audience knew these songs and wanted to show it, warbling along to “Over the Rainbow,” “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead,” and “If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/Nerve.”
Casa made a smart choice in building their show around the iconic 1939 MGM movie musical. Oz is a treat for the eyes, ears, and heart—a nostalgic dance down the Yellow Brick Road for adults who grew up watching the film, and an engaging, kid-friendly introduction to L. Frank Baum’s quirky American fantasy.
Between the great songs and the wise-cracking ‘30s dialogue, the show almost sells itself. Harold Arlen’s melodies and E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg’s lyrics are endlessly delightful. The harder you listen, the more they make you smile. Who can resist the Cowardly Lion’s simple dream of one day becoming brave:
But I could show my prowess
Be a lion, not a mowess
If I only had the nerve.
Arlen and Harburg were among the best songwriters of the 1930s, and Oz won them an Oscar. Together and separately, they wrote songs made famous by Ethel Waters, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and other stars: “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” “Stormy Weather,” “The Man That Got Away,” “That Old Black Magic.”
Director Joe Sturgeon and music director Vonda K. Bowling make the most of the show’s great song list, mixing child and adult voices into strong ensemble numbers, especially for a “Munchkinland” sequence that charmingly blends grown-up and child actors into a village of “little people.” (You’ll have to see the onstage magic for yourself; we won’t give it away.)
Kids “oohed” over Brad Peterson’s eye-popping projections of Kansas twisters, flying houses, and angry wizards. (Kimberly Powers’ soft-hued barn wood set design makes a great screen for the changing scenery.) But the adults seemed impressed by the special effects too, and the “scary bits” (including plenty of boom-bang and flash from designers Eric Norris and David Neville) didn’t alarm the four- and five-year-olds around me. Oz has just enough shiver-factor to be fun.
Sturgeon’s casting is spot-on: Molly Franco brings a cheery confidence and a bright, strong voice to the role of Dorothy; her “Over the Rainbow” is a sweet and poignant start to the show. And Dorothy’s wingmen—Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, each an amusing, distinct personality as portrayed by Kyle Igneczi, Aaron Jay Green, and James Chandler—are good company for a girl who’s off to see a wizard.
Igneczi’s rubber legs and wild twirls as the Scarecrow bring giggles and grins. Sandy dreadlocks spin under a battered top hat, and his checkered coat (costumes by the imaginative Tammy Spencer) has a hankie peeking from the pocket. In one of several small changes that add surprise and fun, the harmonizing Scarecrow shares his big number (“If I Only Had a Brain’) not just with Dorothy, but also a girl-group trio of feathery lady crows singing backup. Scarecrow’s instant, easy friendship with Dorothy is the heart-tugger of the show.
Casa newcomer Aaron Jay Green makes a sweet-faced and vulnerable Tin Man, metal knees knocking as he creeps through a scary forest—hoping to find the heart his maker left out. And James Chandler’s big-guy presence and rich voice are just right for the Lion who thinks he’s a fraidy-cat. He does a rousing “If I Were King of the Forest” (with some fancy pageant walking), and roars loud enough to scare off any old witch, wicked or not.
And about those witches: Sarah Gay, appropriately scary as Miss Gulch (Dorothy’s nasty, Toto-swiping neighbor) and in black leather leggings as the Wicked Witch of the West, has a big new number of her own. She sings it in grand style, though the song (not one of Arlen and Harburg’s originals) is an awkward fit. And Alexandra Cassens is both soft-spoken and strong as Glinda, the good witch who saves the day more than once. Her “Come Out, Come Out” song to the Munchkins is twinkling and lovely.
Cassens doubles as Dorothy’s motherly Aunt Em, with the versatile Curt Denham as Uncle Henry. Denham never stops moving: For the second time at Casa, he plays the Great Oz himself (both the mysterious wizard and the “Kansas man” behind him), plus traveling fortune-teller Professor Marvel and the memorably grouchy gatekeeper of the Emerald City.
But oh, those Munchkins. Young actors do a fine job as the Munchkinland Mayor (Patrick Bilbow on the night reviewed, alternating with Hunter Hall), Coroner (Ryleigh Jochens), and Barrister (Madeline Ayala), who must decide if the Wicked Witch of the East is “most sincerely dead”—or not. The Lollipop Guild tough guys are MJ Martinez, Madilyn Perry, and Maddox Rogers; and the Lullaby League ballerinas are Addison Grace Bairington and Abby Kathleen Chapman, with Ivy Bilbow and Lilah Firestone alternating performances.
The adults of the ensemble (who also play flying monkeys, castle guards and other roles) are hilariously down-sized to become the sprightly, emotional ordinary citizens of Munchkinland. (Costumer Spencer has outdone herself here, as has choreographer Merrill West, who clearly knows how to make a group move—and not just on their feet.) The Munchkins are a well-trained troupe: they cheer, tap dance, and pivot like a tiny band of synchronized swimmers. And they sing, too! Ensemble members are: Hannah Argüelles, Josh Bangle, Marco Camacho, Alexandra Cassens, Curt Denham, Nigel Hall, Jessica Humphrey, Morgan Haney, Grace Moore, Theodore Morris, Mark Quach, Ally Ramsey, Christian L. Scott, Zachary J. Willis, and Sarah Youngblood.
Another, more recent version of “Over the Rainbow” deepens the heart-tugging final moments of the show (and creates another spot for spontaneous sing-along). We leave the theater with the simplest of words in our ears: “There’s no place like home.” What fun to spend a couple of hours with Dorothy and friends, somewhere over a rainbow—and know we have friends and family waiting for our return.
Almost makes you wish for a twister…but maybe not.