Review: ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at Creative Cauldron

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America’s beloved franchise The Wizard of Oz gets a sprightly and spectacular makeover at Creative Cauldron this month.

Tinman (Willie Garner), Scarecrow (Alan Naylor), and Dorothy (Tiara Whaley). Photo by Keith Waters, Kx Photography.

The musical — with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, as adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987, based on the 1939 landmark film, seeded by L. Frank Baum’s wonderful 1900 children’s book — is undeniably part of our DNA.

Still, even if you know it by heart, this production will blow you away. Director Matt Conner and company fully transfuse hearts and souls into a gush-worthy marvel.

Though the venue is pint-sized — seating capacity just shy of 100 — this immersive experience feels epic, equally suited to the pint-sized patron and those “young in heart” (as the annual movie rite heralded to those of us old enough to remember). Creative Cauldron Producing Director Laura Connors Hull, who triples as Elmira Gulch/The Wicked Witch of the West, promises “it’s like seeing the show on your living room television as it explodes into the room!” That it does. The cast of eight top-notch actors and 20-some real-life munchkins – talented youth who have mastered CC’s inaugural, eight-week musical theater training program – regularly hurtle themselves into the house.

Scarecrow (Alan Naylor) and Dorothy (Tiara Whaley). Photo by Keith Waters, Kx Photography.

Speaking of hurtling houses, the “special effects” throughout are astonishingly creative. Scenic Designer Margie Jervis’ Kansas canvas – a farm in ghostly, grayscale relief – grounds the action, a static screen upon which magic bursts. Starkly muted costumes in the opening scenes smartly mirror young Dorothy’s doldrums. She also helps make the case that Toto is the lost girl’s moral thread – not only the impetus for her journey but the one constant, a part of her, his bark serving both as pain transference and beacon.

Ingenious Properties Master Chris Riherd foreshadows hints of theatrical magic upon Professor Marvel’s entrance, and soon enough Lynn Joslin’s dazzling lighting design and Projection Designer Riki Kim’s hallucinogenic motifs swirl and transport us into Dorothy’s dreamscape. Conner’s willowy choreography animates dancers in black who tantalize as whimsical set pieces and usher us through witty scene transitions.

Beyond the technical brilliance and glorious costumes, the unparalleled artistry in the performances raises this production so far above a children’s show you’ve seen a million times that it’s a must-must-must-see to the millionth power. Even in her petulant phase, Tiara Whaley’s Dorothy is infected with such boundless optimism and wondrous vocals, her famous lines trigger tears. And in what’s ironically the smallest role despite his titular rank, E. Augustus Knapp charms with sass and style as the bumbling Marvel/Oz. And Jim Lynch (Uncle Henry) unfurls with campy shtick as the Guard at the gate in Emerald City.

The clash of good and evil is embodied with superwoman strength by Connors Hull’s winkingly wicked witch (she defies gravity by adding great levity to the role) and Iyona Blake, who floats from an earthy Aunt Em to an elegant Glinda. Blake also serves as musical director; her skills shine in sculpting not only optimistic voices but perfectly blended harmonies from the ensemble. And who wouldn’t melt watching young performers beam their bliss into the audience? Every last one enchants, but Arianna Vargas’ radiance was inescapable, and James Durham’s squeaky Munchkinland Mayor prompted squeals.

It’s the chemistry among that iconic trio, though – Scarecrow (Alan Naylor), Tinman (Willie Garner) and Cowardly Lion (Harv Lester) – that’s everything to write home about. Garner is heart-chokingly tender as well as nimble in his robot-dancing. Lester triumphs as Lion, nodding to Bert Lahr’s characterizations but owning the role with roaring originality. One young girl, especially a-twitter over him, couldn’t stop laughing, creating her own cameo. But when the scene changed to the Haunted Forest, she announced: “I want to go home now” and curled up into her mother’s lap – proof that what resonates most with these outlandish characters is their pure humanity.

Twenty-some youth performers and Dorothy (Tiara Whaley). Photo by Keith Waters, Kx Photography.

Naylor, as Scarecrow, I think I’m endeared to most of all. He is not so much made of straw as rubber. His superb vocals anchor the show and worm into your fibers and memory banks. Outstanding would be an understatement.

Although most of the hit songs are in the first act, a darker Act Two showcases two show-stoppers: an extended “The Merry Old Land of Oz,” in which pantomime choreography takes it to a ticklish new level, and “The Jitterbug,” where costumes, lights, and choreography all meld into a spidery web of wonder. (The “poppies” scene from Act One is also an unforgettable artistic vignette.) And I take it back: This is nothing like watching the movie in your living room. The organics of live theater and the surprises hidden in the stage version will make you feel like a Wizard of Oz newbie.

Get off your duff to see this wizardry. It’s an outing that reminds you we each share an inner journey to peace and happiness that, no matter how weak or strong the support system, we must make alone. That it does get better. That we each carry a compass to find the rainbow after the storm. Strong messages at any time, but all the more meaningful during Pride month.

Wicked it’s not. Conner laces this production with so much love, it quite possibly could bring someone back from the brink. Because there’s no place like home when your home happens to be the theater.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

The Wizard of Oz plays through June 25, 2017, at Creative Cauldron at ArtSpace — 410 South Maple Avenue in the Pearson Square Building, in Falls Church, VA. For tickets, call (571) 239-5288, or purchase them online.