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Fresh Takes on Old Stories

During my youth I'm certain that mine was not the only household that made an event out of such steadfast fare as the annual television showings of Judy Garland's The Wizard of Oz and Mary Martin's Peter Pan. What is amazing is that I remember vividly the sepia tones of Kansas transforming into radiantly colorful hues of Oz, even though we didn't have a color TV until I was in high school. Such was the masterful storytelling that sparked our young imaginations.

Thanks to our friends at SHN in San Francisco, we have been treated recently to updated visitations to Oz and Neverland. And our imaginations continue to be piqued.

The current version of The Wizard of Oz managed to retain the flavor of the original though the script and score were updated by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice and Jeremy Sams. We expect the movie version of musicals to be told differently than the stage versions. Films are able to use different forms of theatrical "magic" than may be translatable to the stage and the flow between scenes, obviously, must be handled with different brands of fairy dust. Still, I was happy to see that the creative team remained truer to what we remember from our youth than it could have with the potential of being Wicked-ized. The Ozian characters in Wizard seemed more natural and relatable than those from Wicked.

The updates to both story and song were refreshingly welcome. It was delightful getting to know Aunt Em and Uncle Henry better via the new song "Nobody Understands Me," created for them and the other farm members at the top of the show. And there were plenty of other new musical gems, including Professor Marvel's "Wonders of the World," using his tricked-out wagon, and the Wicked Witch's "Red Shoes Blues." We were able to experience most of the effects from the film through use of animation projected on a front scrim.

The only thing I missed was the flying. Glinda flew in to introduce herself but never flew again. The Wizard's balloon came in and took him away. But that was it. The Wicked Witch was a pedestrian. Even the flying monkeys only flew via animation.

The one design element that remained true from the film was Dorothy's blue gingham dress. But in Oz, the dress magically transformed to green using the same instant technique used to dress Cinderella for the ball in that recent theatrical update.

Peter and the Star Catcher, a prequel to Peter Pan, was the horse of a different color. It's the story of a boy, orphaned at such a young age that he doesn't even know his name, and his transformation into Peter Pan, as well as the transformation of the other characters that will inhabit Neverland with him. Molly, a Starcatcher-in-training, helps him to become who he is destined to be.

This was a truly ensemble production. Each of the 12 cast members had a primary character but also stepped into dozens of others throughout the piece. Even the three principals, Peter, Molly & Black Stache, occasionally slipped on other characters. The remarkable achievement was that there was never a sense of confusion as to what or who was being portrayed.

This was accomplished not only by the dead-on cast but also by the minimalist design elements and carefully-paced storytelling that encouraged the audience to provide their own imaginations to enhance the experience.

Everything that happens on stage was accomplished via the 24 hands on stage and the tight synchronization of each perfomer. More "magic" occured on this stage than on the Wizard stage. There was even more magical flying, including that flicker of light that became Tinkerbell which was seamlessly tossed around the stage. Even Molly was able to levitate without the use of pixie dust.

Starcatcher was not a "musical" but included a lot of fine music and sound effects masterfully sung by the cast and accompanied by a 2-member "orchestra." The sets were ropes and ladders and models and other toys. This piece of theatre was a treatise on the adage "less is more."

There was very little that happened in the play that didn't have a direct purpose. Some elements seemed silly for the sake of silliness but ultimately progressed the story. One item had no real bearing on the plot but was a not-to-be-missed show stopper. The entre'acte was a Busby Berkeley mermaid extravaganza that featured the entire company of 11 men and 1 woman.

My son, Dakin, always believed that he could be like Peter Pan and never grow up. As much as adulthood may be trying to convince him otherwise, I am proud to be a part of the theatre community that provides fare such as this and allows us the hope of the possibility that maybe . . . just maybe . . .

And, by the way, the reimagined Porgy and Bess is coming this week also.

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