Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wizard of Oz and 50th

(News-Herald, December 11) This weekend Franklin Civic Operetta marks the end of its 50th anniversary season. That’s no small achievement. Theater takes an investment of considerable time and effort. Finding people to make that investment is a challenge; there are communities far larger than ours that can’t do it. It says something about Venangoland that not just one, but two theater groups can flourish here.
Time demands are big. Turnover is frequent; burnout not unheard of. There can be plenty of extra drama; nobody ever stepped out to perform on stage because he had a tiny ego.
Broadway producers have big budgets and their pick of thousands of talented hopefuls; community theater directors work with a couple of bucks and hope they will have at least as many auditioners as they have roles to fill.
Sometimes community theater can achieve greatness that you only get from gifted amateurs. Sometimes, not so much. Sometimes community theater can take bold chances, and sometimes it plays it safe. Sometimes it provides its audience with a challenge, and sometimes it goes straight for the theatrical comfort food. In fifty years, Civic has done all that.
Civic celebrates its fiftieth even as its theater, the Barrow, celebrates its fifteenth anniversary. It has been an impressive trip from a barn and a concrete slab to a fully functional showpiece of a theater.
In my universe, a great community theater production has a little bit of everything—something for audience to look forward to, something familiar, something they’ve never seen before, something they can only get from live theater. This weekend’s mounting of the Wizard of Oz is the perfect finish to the anniversary season.
Part of the work has been done by the writers, who have kept everything anyone ever loved about the classic movie, but added small twists, additions, and expansions (I always wondered why, at the end of the film, Miss Gulch didn’t just come back for Toto and start the whole mess over again). Musically, you get extras as well—the verses that you’ve never heard, and the long-lost musical number that was cut from the film in production.
Director Ted Smith has avoided the mistake of simply trying to reproduce the movie on stage. First, he has opened up the Barrow; the show blossoms right off the stage and fills every corner of the house. I would never have thought of Oz as an intimate theater-in-the-round sort of show, but the depth and space that this staging opens up (a whole new section of stage was built for this) creates a world that is both more intimate and at the same time broader and bigger than anything seen previously.
Second, there’s a whole new visual element to this Oz, particularly in the costuming. This Oz looks feels familiar yet new, comfy yet fresh (bolstered by the set work of Ed Ramage, possibly the single most valuable person in all of Civic). You recognize it and remember it, and yet at the same time, it’s full of surprises. The end effect is like seeing Oz for the first time and not the six hundredth.
The cast itself is outstanding. Local theater fans will see old favorites, including Jacob Krupitzer doing some of his best work ever as the Tin Man and Mike Leisher (the Cowardly Lion) proving once again that he is a great comedic actor trapped in a leading man’s body. Wicked Witch Jamie Agnello’s return to the local stage is absolutely triumphant, and Linda Leisher was born to play Glinda.
But audiences also get to see something new. RGHS student Molly Burkett’s Dorothy is the emotional linchpin of the show; her “Over the Rainbow” is the audience’s assurance that they are in good hands for the evening. And BCT newcomer Brett Sloan manages to both honor Ray Bolger and create a magical new scarecrow of his own.
These leads are absolutely superb, and they are surrounded by a crowd of munchkins, Ozians, flying monkeys, dancing ghosts (courtesy Jackie Fike) and winkies who make Oz come alive for just a too-short evening. A great orchestra led by Steve Luxbacher creates a lush carpet of sound, and an army of stage hands complete (literally) the picture. A small army of people of all ages from all over Venangoland stretch themselves and the beautiful theater to bring a great finish to the anniversary year.
Word of caution. Tickets are in short supply, but rumors of a sell-out always start way before it actually happens. Call for tickets. You don’t want to miss this one.

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