ELLSWORTH — The Grand’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” which opened last weekend, has put the fine old theater back on track of presenting excellently cast, produced, directed and performed musicals.
While there have been elements of all these qualities in recent past productions, it has been a while since they all have come together in one fun show.
Actually, the performance went above and beyond just coming together. Mid-first act, on opening night, the theater’s fire alarm went off just as Dorothy’s house landed on the Wicked Witch of the East. The theater had to be evacuated, with weeping little munchkins being carried out by their parents.
It turned out to be a false alarm, but there was concern that the actors, especially the children and the show’s 14-year-old star Emma Campbell, would be discombobulated by the interruption.
As we waited for the Fire Department to give the “all clear,” I asked director Leslie Michaud if she would prefer to me to come back and review a different show. Without hesitation she responded, “No, not at all, they will be fine.”
And, oh boy, were they! The cast jumped right back into the story and, if anything, were even more focused than before the alarm went off.
Let’s start with Campbell as Dorothy Gale, the little girl from Kansas who gets blown by a tornado to an enchanted land.
This girl is a phenom. From the moment she arrives on stage with her little dog Toto in tow, she commands the stage with her engaging presence and impressive vocal projection. While The Grand is trying to raise money for a much-needed new sound system, Campbell’s speaking and lovely singing voice easily reached the back of the auditorium, unamplified, without losing the vocal nuances needed for effective acting. This is an ability that comes with experience, and a quick check of the program reveals that this young actor has an impressive resume including stints with the professional Penobscot Theatre in Bangor.
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the opening song, is not easy to sing. It requires several octaves and has a complicated opening (not heard in the movie.) But Campbell sailed through it like a, well, bluebird, with her excellent pitch and gentle vibrato making the song her own and the audience fall in love with the wishful, wistful Dorothy, all over again. In fact, all the singers and the chorus under the direction of Ashley Terwilliger were great.
If Campbell had been the only cast member to win our hearts, the show would still be worth attending, but she was just one of many.
On the spectrum of characters we love to hate was Jennifer Myers, playing the horrible Miss Gulch and the even more horrible Wicked Witch of The West. She is marvelously menacing in the first scene when she furiously pedals her black bike to the Gale farm to seize the mischievous Toto (on opening night a very cooperative Shih Tzu named Hattie Deeny) But when she came screaming across the parapet in Munchkinland, like a malevolent flapping crow, everyone in the audience jumped in their seats.
Kudos here, among many, to costume designer Stephanie Urquhart who despite working with a tight budget came up with some inspired costuming, including this one, which seemed to have a wicked-scary mind of its own. On the opposite end of that spectrum were those cute, colorful Munchkins, jazzy little Jitterbugs, monkeys and poppies and crows, oh my!
Another excellent counterbalance to the Wicked Witch was Angela Bonocasa as both the endearing Auntie Em and the Enchanting Glinda. Bonacasa is another performer with considerable stage experience and it shows. She was completely convincing, while completely distinct in her dual roles, with a sweet ethereal soprano, to boot.
Just as Glinda was beckoning the Munchkins to “come out, come out” the fire alarm went off and instead of tiptoeing on stage these little ones were whisked out of the theater. But 15 minutes later they were all back, ready to make their entrance and when they did, they couldn’t have been more darling. Many who had speaking lines channeled their film counterparts, which they did hilariously well, others charted new territory as they sent Dorothy off to see the Wizard.
To varying degrees the three friends Dorothy meets along the way — Scarecrow (Brady Kelly), Tin Man, (Andrew Myer) and Lion (Benjamin Chandler) pay homage to the three originals, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr, and they are all simply wonderful. Each embodies not only their character’s physicality but their spirits — Scarecrow’s rubber legs and goofy wisdom, Tin Man’s creaky stiffness and sweet melancholy and Lion’s abject terror coupled with absolute loyalty.
Director Leslie Michaud does a marvelous job getting all her characters to relate to one another and to the audience. Her quartet gets off on the Yellow Brick road and through a variety of strange encounters at a steady pace, so there is never a lull in the action.
It must be said here that when — after all their colorful adventures, Dorothy and company do get an audience with the Wizard — it’s an anticlimax. The production crew needs to amp up the rather static special effects for the Great and Powerful Oz. In truth, Daniel Clement who plays both the gentle humbug Prof. Marvel and the Wizard is much more impressive when he’s outed by Toto. Also, in the fizzled effects department, the Wicked Witch’s fire was dull, and her watery end, rather, um, dry.
Something that worked unexpectedly well was the use of screen projections and despite a few opening night glitches, Nick Turner’s sound engineering. As in the Christmas show, last December, the set was a combination of hand-built structures and screen projections from the film, which worked well, then, as it does now as an ingenious answer to a limited budget. What didn’t work in December was the taped musical accompaniment. But it was just fine here, never overwhelming the singers and keeping them on pace. While it is hoped, when The Grand gets its new sound system, they will return to a live pit, this appears to be a reasonable alternative, for now.
Well, they have plenty of time to work out the glitches and make the whole production even more magical than it already is over the next couple of weekends.
This is one not to miss, so get a ride on a tornado, a broomstick, balloon or, perhaps, a car to The Grand at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 12-13, 2 p.m. Saturday, April 13, 7 p.m. Friday, April 19, and at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 20. To reserve seats, call 667-9500 and visit grandonline.org.