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There was some delicious irony in the fact that when NETworks Presentations, LLC’s dynamic multimedia production of The Wizard of Oz touched down in Raleigh at 8 p.m. on Tuesday night, as part of the Broadway Series South series, Wake County was still under a tornado warning. In fact, ominous low-level “rotations” (whatever they are) had been spotted in the immediate vicinity of Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, where NETworks’ nifty presentation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1988 musical version of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s story and the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie will complete its six-day run on May 10th.
A crackerjack touring company sings and dances up a storm in Technicolor costumes on spectacular storybook sets with American Primitive and with Art Deco touches — both cleverly conceived by scenic and costume designer Tim McQuillen-Wright — and director Nigel West liberally employs a giant rear screen for the sepia-toned videos created by Second Homes Productions to evoke the emptiness of the endless prairies of Kansas and the terrifying twisters that roar out of nowhere to devastate isolated farmhouses and outbuildings.
Cassie Okenka is a delight as lonely pigtailed Kansas farm girl Dorothy Gale, and she makes Judy Garland’s signature song “Over the Rainbow” soar. Bruce Warren is a bit growly as Dorothy’s gruff Uncle Henry, but Caitlin Maloney doubles delightfully as down-to-earth Auntie Em and the ethereal Glinda the Good Witch of the North, who floats over the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium stage like a vision in white.
Noah Aberlin, Chris Kind, and Jason Simon likewise sparkle in their dual roles as the three homespun hired hands on Uncle Henry and Auntie Em’s hardscrabble farm who reappear, in Munchkinland, as Dorothy’s erstwhile companions, The Scarecrow, The Tinman, and The Cowardly Lion. Noah Aberlin is loose-limbed, rubber-legged, and altogether lovable as Hunk and highly flammable Scarecrow who takes to the Yellow Brick Road with Dorothy in order to obtain a brain from the ill-tempered Wizard of Oz (played with praiseworthy pomposity by Robert John Biedermann, who also adds an amusing comic cameo as the mysterious Professor Marvel).
Chris Kind cuts a fine figure as Hickory and the rust-plagued Tinman, who stiffly journeys to Oz in search of a heart; and Jason Simon steals many a scene with his outrageous antics as the windbag Zeke and the bellicose Cowardly Lion, who struts and frets boldly but ultimately lacks the courage to back up his many threats.
The show’s light-footed production numbers, crisply choreographed by Leigh Constantine, include “If I Only Had a Brain” and “If I Only Had a Heart,” which respectively provided spotlight moments for two lively trios: David Geinosky, Beau Hutchings, and Timothy McNeill as the Crows and Lauryn Ciardullo, Jessa Rose, and Sara Ruzicka as the Trees. But the evening’s dance highlight is the “Jitterbug” number resurrected from the cutting-room floor after it was excised from the 1939 film.
Awesome Aerographics® by Flying by Foy® helped Glinda and the Wicked Witch float high over the stage, and animated accompaniment by The Wizard of Oz orchestra not only helped the musical gems in the Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg score and background music by Herbert Stothart take wing once again. But they also combined with the explosive special effects by J&M Special Effects, exuberant musical staging by director Nigel West and choreographer Leigh Constantine, and personable performances by an outstanding cast to make The Wizard of Oz a must-see musical for children of all ages.
My only quibble with this production is that the trademark Yellow Brick Road is largely missing in action. Because it has been relegated to a painted ribbon in the middle distance on backdrops, Dorothy, Toto, and friends are largely dancing on a bare stage. But on a night when tornados were prowling the heavily populated parts of Cary and Raleigh — amidst sporadic cloudbursts approximating a biblical deluge at times — any road that wasn’t flooded was a good road.
The Wizard of Oz continues at Broadway Series South through May 10th. See our theatre calendar for details.