Chicago Theatre Review
A Darker Side of the Rainbow
The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz – House Theatre
After the board of a prestigious private school turns down her application for admittance, recently orphaned adolescent, Dorothy Gale (played with charisma, strength and determination by Kara Davidson), sadly returns to her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s Kansas farm. Upon arriving home, Dorothy finds that a violent storm is approaching; however, her aunt and uncle are nowhere to be found. Soon the raging winds are carrying the poor, terrified teenager far away to a place called Munchkin Land, where Dorothy’s hailed as a hero and The Witch Slayer. Confused, the young girl discovers why she’s earned this title, when Glinda the Good Witch reveals that Dorothy’s house has crushed and killed the Wicked Witch of the East. She also points out that Dorothy now wears the evil sorceress’ magic silver boots, splattered red with her blood.
Sound slightly familiar? L. Frank Baum’s eternally popular children’s book spawned an entire series of Oz literary adventures, as well as the 1939 cult film classic and a whole slew of musical and dramatic adaptations. As a matter of fact, at this time there are no less than three other productions of the story playing on stages around Chicagoland. This revised version of The House Theatre’s twelve-year-old favorite, written by Phillip Klapperich, adds several new twists and contemporary updates to an already wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Dorothy declines an invitation to remain in Munchkin Land, extended by its citizens and Glinda (played with regal arrogance and grace by Amanda de la Guardia). Instead, Dorothy and her sweet, canine companion, Toto (a fluffy puppy puppet perfectly inhabited by Joey Steakley), elect to take their chances, traveling down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City. Once there, Dorothy hopes to be granted a personal audience with the Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz, to request his help in getting back to Kansas.
Along her way, Dorothy meets the lovable Scarecrow, an hilarious new friend, born just the day before. He delights with his innocent naivete and a seriously problematic absence of short-term memory. Constantly spouting malapropisms, he’s wonderfully played with wide-eyed wonder and amiability by Christine Mayland Perkins. Next, Dorothy meets the stoic, silver-toned Tin Woodsman, played with tenderhearted machismo by Jeremy Sonkin. Last of all, the trio encounter the Cowardly Lion, a pompous pussycat of a dude, performed with phony bravado and comic excellence by Michael E. Smith.
Dorothy and her friends cope with all sorts of obstacles in her dark travels down the Yellow Brick Road. First, she’s torn by the demands of two lifelong enemies who are continually at odds with each other. They’re the vile, blood-thirsty Wicked Witch of the West, a terrifying AnJi White, and the ever-demanding, egotistical Wizard, a glorious green despot, played with gumption by Benjamin Sprunger. The four friends also encounter a field of sleep-inducing poppies, a herd of giant, prehistoric monsters and a flock of frightening flying monkeys, as they travel on their way.
Tommy Rapley has staged and choreographed his ever-mobile production alley style, with curtained, proscenium stages anchoring each end of the playing area. He directs this beloved story at lightning speed, pausing only momentarily for the audience to catch its breath or to reflect upon their journey. Rapley’s ably assisted by Ryan Bourque, who provides some super exciting fight and flight choreography.
Joseph A. Burke lends his creative touch with moving projections that enhance Collette Pollard’s deceptively simple and clever scenic design, that places the audience right in the middle of the action. An effective lighting plot and soundtrack, designed, respectively, by Lee Keenan and Grover Hollway, add so much to this production; and the always inventive Mieka van der Ploeg creates a wardrobe of unique, eye-popping costumes that add color and personality to each character. But, in true House Theatre style, it’s the wonderful life-size puppet creations by Jesse Mooney-Bullock that provide that extra special touch to this often ominous fantasy.
Recommended for everyone, from children, ages 10 and up, to adults hungering for an escapist, two-act fantasy that’s unique yet familiar, this restaged production from twelve years ago is fresh and full of unexpected humor. Tommy Rapley’s dynamic production takes L. Frank Baum’s timeless children’s classic, written back in 1900, into the 21st century. With cell phones, powerpoint presentations, blue jeans and cowboy boots, this dark, funny, multimedia version of one of kiddy-lit’s most beloved stories is a production that put The House Theatre of Chicago on the map. Just follow the Yellow Brick Road once again to bewitching enchantment and be prepared to be astounded.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 18-May 7 by The House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-769-3832 or by going to www.thehousetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.