|Kassie Switzer (Tin Man), Hallie Bartell (Cowardly Lion), Carter Dawes|
(Toto), Mackenzie Gross (Dorothy), Caleb Kinder (Scarecrow)Kathy Campbell Photography
By Tina Arth
As in previous seasons, Theatre in the Grove is welcoming the new year with a bright and lively youth theatre production – for 2016, the Young Performer’s Edition of The Wizard of Oz. Director Donald Cleland and a small army of hard-working adults (most, but not all, the parents of cast members) provide a sturdy framework – direction, sets, costume, music, lights, choreography, props. However, it’s the kids in the cast who really bring this charming version of the iconic show to full living color. While the show has been condensed to a single act of about 70 minutes, none of the key scenes are slighted, and the pacing allows the young cast members to really act, rather than just racing to get through their lines and songs.
The show is definitely aimed at younger audiences, and the opening night crowd was full of children who obviously loved the show (and the opportunity to mingle with the performers on stage after the curtain fell). Theater snobs may be tempted to sneer at the canned music, but it’s pretty impressive to see 35 actors (average age: ~9) follow prerecorded, unforgiving sound cues to sing and dance their way through this complex show. While there are a few awkward pauses, the cast manages to avoid any moments of staggering, uttering, stuttering, or humming until they find the beat.
The kids in the show are all, of course, just ridiculously cute. However, several older cast members (and one really young one) deliver amazing performances that propel the production and thoroughly captivate the audience. The decision to use a puppet for Toto in Kansas, then have the young puppeteer assume the dog’s role in Oz, works beautifully to express the “Over the Rainbow” magic of Dorothy and Toto’s journey, and little Carter Dawes (as Toto) never stops acting and reacting to the rest of the cast. Grace Malloy (as the Munchkin Mayor and Ozian Guard) delivers her lines with a sparkling clarity that sets the standard for the rest of the “smaller” roles – her short stature hides a mature and seasoned actress. Sarah Felder is deliciously sinister as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West, and as the Cowardly Lion, Hallie Bartell gives a memorable rendition of “If I Were the King of the Forest.”
For me, the surprise of the evening was Caleb Kinder’s take on the Scarecrow. His loose-limbed, floppy physicality contrasts nicely with the maturity of his delivery; he’s agile and athletic enough for this broad role, but he is never silly, and his facial and vocal expressions are those of a grown man.
Of course, The Wizard of Oz rises or falls on the strength of Dorothy. Having seen Mackenzie Gross play Annie at TITG in 2013, I fully expected this multi-talented performer to nail the role, and she does. Gross captures the pathos and yearning of a young girl traversing the treacherous waters between sheltered childhood and the perilous but exciting adult world, and her “Over the Rainbow” is perhaps the show’s finest moment.
The sets and lighting are basic, but effectively convey the story’s changing locales and moods. Costume coordinator Tami Malloy and her team have assembled an unbelievable 94 costumes for the production, and the backstage help manages the many wardrobe changes without a hitch (or, more perilously, a delay).
With only a two-week run, next weekend will be the last opportunity to enjoy this ray of indoor sunshine to brighten an exceptionally soggy January. Grab some children if you have any handy, but in any case find time to support and enjoy another of TITG’s excellent youth productions.