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A Great, Family-Friendly “Oz” is just ‘Soooooomewheeeeeere Ooooover on Glenway’

Review by Jack Crumley of The Wizard of Oz: Covedale Center for the Performing Arts

It’s difficult to think of a show that would attract an audience more wide-ranging in age than The Wizard of Oz. Sunday’s matinee at Covedale was a very full house, and I think seniors had the majority. But I can’t think of another performance I’ve seen there that had as many children in attendance as this one. No matter the age, they saw a really well-put-together show that paid tremendous attention to detail.

Director Bob Brunner has put on stage a colorful, lively production of a movie that was a technological, special effects marvel for its time. This show has all the characters you love, and all the songs you know (and then some). It’s a spot-on, faithful adaptation with a band (led by Ron Attreau) in the pit that hits all of the musical cues you remember from the movie: from the driving melody that accompanies the Wicked Witch of the West, to the familiar chorus of “We’re Off to See the Wizard.”

The actors really thrive in their roles. I want to start with special praise for the ensemble. This isn’t an excessively large group of people to play the munchkins, crows, trees, poppies, and the citizens of Oz. Eight young adults and teens cover all those parts (along with four very talented younger girls in the child ensemble), and they do it with aplomb. There’s no such thing as subtlety in Munchkinland or Oz, nor should there be. There was never a time when those ensemble actors weren’t watching, reacting, or smiling. They were all enthusiastic to the point of cartoonish excitement, and I mean that as high praise. That level of commitment is what a show like Oz needs.

Their job is made easier, I would say, by the energy the main cast brings to their roles. Ally Davis plays Dorothy as the wide-eyed farm girl who just wants to go home, but is willing to help the strangers she meets along the way. Davis had a couple mild pitch problems as she stood on the front porch and sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but once the show got going, there wasn’t a sour note. Davis is as friendly and forthright as Dorothy Gale from Kansas should be.

I last saw Chris Logan Carter as Dr Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein. At that time, I was very impressed with the way he handled songs with a lot of fast-talking lyrics. This time, as Scarecrow, he brings a great physicality to his songs and dialogue. Carter’s movements–whether he’s stumble-dancing or jumping up and down–have a fluidity to them as though he didn’t actually have human bones and muscle under his costume.

Also bringing strong, character-based moves to the stage is Jeremiah Plessinger’s Tinman. Plessinger’s shift from playing the tough-but-fair Lt Jack Ross in A Few Good Men just a couple weeks ago, to the hollow-bodied, robot-like Tinman is remarkable. He also has a pleasant voice that he changed between playing both the Gale farmhand, Hickory, and Tinman.

Rounding out the main group is Brandon Bentley’s Cowardly Lion. I last saw him play a less-problematic Ali Hakim in Oklahoma!, and this time he plays the comedic Lion to the hilt. I think that may have also included some funny ad libs. His imposing size added a visual element to a role that’s often just about makeup. [Note: there’s no specific credit for a makeup artist in the program, but the makeup is impeccable and I have no idea how it’s put on and taken off as quickly as the show requires.] Bentley basks in his “If I Were King of the Forest” number, and the only issue I had was that his microphone occasionally cut out during the show. I don’t think I missed anything because of it, but it was distracting.

The double duty role of Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch is fiercely played by Michelle Wells, whose pitch-perfect cackle would carry to the back of the house whether she was mic’d or not. Erin Nicole Donahue is a solid Aunt Em, but she shines (quite literally) as Glinda, the good witch. Peter Cutler, also previously seen in Young Frankenstein, has excellent comedic timing for his few lines as Uncle Henry, and it’s amusing to hear such a tall guy put on a Mickey Mouse voice to play the Mayor of Munchkinland. Kyle Taylor’s triple duty role of Professor Marvel, Oz Gate Guard, and The Wizard seems exhausting, especially with the boundless exuberance and Muppet-like weirdness he brings to that Guard character. While leading the cast in the Emerald City, on a pathway between the pit and the audience, he called out a stray program someone laid there, and that was exceptionally fun to see.

As usual, Brett Bowling has put together a great set. Before the show started, the pale farmhouse and cellar doors on stage made it all appear black and white. When Dorothy arrives in Munchkinland, it’s rainbows all around with a set of Yellow Brick Road stairs that’s used to showcase different moments that would otherwise be static. Sunday’s performance had some issues with scene changes, but nothing that made the show less enjoyable. This production has a large puppet face for Oz that Taylor manipulates before he’s discovered to be a fraud. The sets combined with a healthy usage of smoke machine, and special lighting and sound cues to really sell all the fantastical elements that happen during the show: tornadoes, witch teleportation, etc. Fire is talked about in dialogue (as a threat to Scarecrow), but visually, it’s left to the audience’s imagination, and that’s ok. I understand that the risks of having an open flame on stage might not be worth it.

One more piece of technical praise is for the costumes. Caren Brady’s designs are incredibly detail-oriented and clever. Scarecrow was brilliant, I loved Tinman’s empty torso, and Glinda glittered. I think my favorite costumes were the members of the ensemble as poppies in the field. The green and red with flowing sleeves looked great.

This production is a delightful trip over the rainbow; full of song, humor, and classic characters that have stood the test of time. It’s a joy for all ages.

The Wizard of Oz runs at the Covedale Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through November 18. Tickets are available by calling 513-241-6550 or going to the Covedale website, www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/ccpa