Review: ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ at Synetic Theater

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Synetic Theater’s admirable, family-friendly production of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) is the premiere mainstage production of Synetic’s New Voice Series. For those familiar with Synetic productions, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is neither a “silent” show nor one with all the characters having the ability to speak. Rather, it is its own hybrid in which learning to communicate between those with and without voices is a major dramatic element.

L-R: Lee Liebeskind (Cowardly Lion), Philip Fletcher (Tin Man), Emily Whitworth (Dorothy), Dallas Tolentino (Scarecrow), and Jacob Yeh (Toto) in Synetic Theater's production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.
L-R: Lee Liebeskind (Cowardly Lion), Philip Fletcher (Tin Man), Emily Whitworth (Dorothy), Dallas Tolentino (Scarecrow), and Jacob Yeh (Toto) in Synetic Theater’s production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

First off, the New Voice Series focuses on providing opportunities for emerging creative artists of new generations to adapt, direct and choreograph a Synetic mainstage production under the coaching and mentoring of Paata Tsikurishvili, Founding Artistic Director, and Irina Tsikurishvili, Co-Founding Choreographer and Associate Artistic Director. Opportunities are to be provided to both long-term Synetic company members and artists outside of the troupe.

Second is this. Only a couple of weeks before opening night of the newly created The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, cascades of water flowed into Synetic’s usual Crystal City venue. The water ruined key spaces including some associated with the new production of Oz. On-going production activities had to be halted. Damage had to be assessed. Then the critical question, what now for the production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? Well, that question was answered; the show must go on.

Synetic secured a new venue so that opening night would be not be delayed. Thanks to the generous folk at Georgetown University, a new venue was located. The production needed to be re-worked since the Georgetown University location had a smaller stage and about half the seats as in Synetic’s normal Crystal City venue.

I suspect most know the basics of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Co-adaptors Tori Bertocci and Ryan Sellers used the original source material, Baum’s book. Bertocci and Sellers’ theatrical choices appear based upon the Baum book, not the 1939 movie or the 1975 musical The Wiz.

The bones of the Bertocci and Sellers adaptation chronicles the unexpected journey of a young Kansas farm girl named Dorothy who is whisked away from her home after being caught up in a cyclone. Dorothy and her loyal, frisky dog Toto find themselves in a magical land called Oz. They land in Oz along with the remains of her house that crushed a very bad witch. Now Dorothy and Toto find themselves in a world populated by all sorts of beings and creatures. Some speak, some don’t. Some have magical powers, most do not. The production opens with a strange little humbug of man we will come to know later. Aunt Em is not to be found.

Key to the Bertocci and Sellers production under the direction of Sellers is a line near the top of the show: “words are the province of wizards and witches” as spoken by a good witch (Suzy Alden). Quickly Dorothy and Toto come in contact with the likes of the Munchkins, some creatures (and soon-to-be-friends) in need of some self-esteem, and a strange little humbug of a man. For the citizens and creatures of Oz, Dorothy is no young Kansas farm girl, but a sorceress to be almost worshipped.

Suzy Alden (Witch of the North) and Emily Whitworth (Dorothy) in Synetic Theater's production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Photo by Johnny Shryock.
Suzy Alden (Witch of the North) and Emily Whitworth (Dorothy) in Synetic Theater’s production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

What caught my attention throughout the production at the recent matinee performance I attended was the full house that included many children, younger teens and below in age–likely half the audience. They were accompanied by moms and dads and grandparents. During the performance, the children did not seem to fidget, cry out, or chat loudly as if bored. They were right there in the moment. This was especially true during on-stage antics as laughter rippled through the audience.

As an adult, I enjoyed many of the deft touches that director Sellers had me see. Some shout-outs:

  • Emily Whitworth, as Dorothy, is an appealing, gentle, protective, strong-willed big-sister type. She is lively in her moments with plenty of pizzazz. I do just wish there was a moment or two of some real anger at someone or something.
  • As Scarecrow, Dallas Tolentino has a huge arc in the show, even learning to speak. Not bad for someone without a brain. His rubbery movement and dance skills made the children in the house just laugh and laugh. The audience also laughed at the comic work of the Cowardly Lion played by Lee Liebeskind. If I had to guess, the children just found him adorable.
  • The Tin Man has a backstory of love lost as the reason for no longer having a heart. It seemed he was protecting himself from more heartbreak. Philip Fletcher tenderly took the spotlight in his scenes. He was so genuine that I could feel his “heart” bleeding as he retold the story of a lost love through nifty puppetry.
  • A water bucket that is brought to Dorothy’s attention by someone that the Witch had abused was simply a wonderfully subversive moment. Just a little push for a foot and yet, priceless.
  • A Lladro porcelain china princess, along with her small community including a joker, appears out of nowhere in an ensemble dance piece that is rather cutely dainty for a Synetic ensemble dance scene. (Tori Bertocci is the choreographer).
  • The direct link between the great Wizard and the Guardian of the Gate is made clear. Both characters depict major duality, neither fully good nor fully bad. Just like real human beings (and we parents). Robert Bowen Smith is a marvel in his acting talents. Watch him and enjoy.
  • Jacob Yeh’s take on Toto is like so many high-energy Jack Russell Terriers I have known in my life.
  • Best ensemble dance work: the six-member Flying Monkeys ensemble.
  • With voices prominent and less often silent moments, resident composer Konstantine Lortkiamodze’s good work is less “large” in the production. That is not a bad thing.

Now for some production tidbits from an adult perspective, that likely changed little for a child’s enjoyment of Synetic’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. While the production was solid, at times the show was just too dramatically unvaried in its spoken narrative or dialogue flew by or a key moment when the Scarecrow first spoke. I can’t speak to the full effect of the last-minute change in locale for the production because of the flooding damage. But that is me, an adult reviewer. The children in the audience at the performance I attended were enthralled; sitting forward watching and taking it all in. It was a fun family-friendly outing. We need plenty of good family theater all over town, so the next generation of theatergoers can enjoy what we already know.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz plays through August 12, 2018, at Synetic Theater, performing at Devine Theater, Georgetown University, Davis Performing Arts Center – 37th and O Streets, NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call Synetic Theater’s box office at 703-824-8060 ext. 117, or go online.