The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz
Story by L. Frank Baum. Music & Lyrics by Harold Arlen & E. Y. Harburg. Background music by Herbert Stothart. Director: Heather Goddard (assisted by Vanessa Parkinson). Musical Director: Dean Mulholland. Presented by Warrnambool Theatre Company & Holiday Actors. Lighthouse Theatre, Warrnambool, Victoria. July 15-22, 2023.

It’s not often you see a piece of community theatre in a regional city that compares to the bigger budget, semi-professional shows that Melbourne produces. However, Warrnambool Theatre Company and Holiday Actors third joint production is an exception. Director Heather Goddard (assisted by Vanessa Parkinson), along with their exceptionally talented creative team, have produced a jaw dropping spectacle!  It was so good, I had to see it a second time, and on the same day!  Complete with stunning vocals, choreography, costumes, sets, projections and even puppets, the huge cast of 50 onstage performers and 23 musicians gave their all, resulting in a show of the finest calibre. From the opening strains of the overture the audience created an electric atmosphere as they cheered, whistled and clapped their enthusiasm for the adventure that awaited them. When Dorothy and Toto first ran across the stage (accompanied by the jaunty Happy Farmer by Schumann) their enthusiastic response was through the roof. 

Set designers Lyle Russell and Heather Goddard's artistic vision is second to none. The impressive sets include a farmhouse (complete with cyclone cellar), Professor Marvel's gypsy wagon, a petrified forest, the Emerald City gates, the Great and Powerful Oz's Chamber (an ornate round room with high ceilings, columns and large windows), cornfields as high as an elephant's eye, a hot air balloon, the immense face of the Wizard, the quirky landscape of Munchkinland complete with a kaleidoscope of colourful houses, and much much more!  Creative Designer Greta Punch and Projection Technician Joel Barker's use of digital screen technology is possibly the best I've seen in amateur theatre to date! Spectacular landscapes for each scene helped to give the staging a 3D immersive feel. The menacing onset of the cyclone, objects flying through the air (including a cow, rocking chair, power pole and rowboat), and a stunning meadow of radiant poppies were highlights of Punch's digital mastery. Heather Goddard and Rob Foard's sumptuous Lighting Design (including swirls of light depicting the storm, the hot sun upon the Kansas prairie, the washes of blue and yellow in the Emerald City, the dark shadows of the enchanted forest, flashes of light heralding the entrance and exit of the Wicked Witch), all enhanced the overall visual experience. James Dyson and Tom Partridge's Sound Design was well balanced despite the challenge of having a large orchestra in the front of the house. On the whole, the vocals and dialogue were heard clearly. Sound effects were used to great effect and spatially panned throughout the theatre.

Costume Designer Janet Punch and her skilled team had their work cut out for them (literally!). Costuming 50 cast members and understudies, not to mention numerous wardrobe changes is a big undertaking. The visually stunning costumes included Dorothy's iconic blue gingham dress (and sparkling ruby slippers), the Scarecrow's worn out straw filled farm clothes, the Tin Man's metallic silver suit (with funnel shaped hat), and the Lion's full bodysuit (complete with mane, paws and tail). Standout costumes included Glinda's sparkling pink gown (complete with a crown adorned with jewels), an orchard of Trees heavily laden with apples, a field of dancing poppies with flowers almost as big as the dancers themselves, bodysuits and capes worn by the principal dancers in a modern style ballet (depicting the chaos of the cyclone), the vibrant, elegant emerald green costumes worn by the people in the Land of Oz, not to mention the army of Winkie soldiers uniforms and hats. My favourite costumes were the flying monkeys that from a distance looked fabulous with their extra-large pink ears, which were hand crocheted. Very ingenious!

The use of puppets (co-ordinated by Greta Punch) was a delightful surprise. Before and during the performance puppeteers walked around the onstage farmyard with four chickens and a goose, noisily interacting with each other, the humans and Dorothy's dog Toto (cleverly brought to life by puppeteer Mabel Albers). The decision to make two Toto puppets was a clever idea!  When Dorothy's dream begins in Munchkinland Toto now wears a red gingham coat similar in colour to the ruby slippers. In the final scene Toto reverts back to his more scruffy, farm look. As the show's puppet master, Greta Punch's dream was fulfilled on the final Saturday matinee when she was understudy for Toto. Punch's skilful interactions during the performance captivated the hearts of the audience, especially the children. A field of crow puppets was used to great effect during the cornfield scene. Dan Duffy, Glenistair Hancock and Jack Duffy (as the three main puppeteers) provided delightful harmonies and a little satire during Scarecrow's song 'If I Only Had a Brain'. The menacing Wizard of Oz's gigantic head (with smoke billowing out of its mouth) was commandeered by Glenistair Hancock, Jack Duffy and Paul Howlett. When it was discovered that the Wizard is a humbug, a large red tongue rolled out of its giant mouth (breaking the tension of the scene) to much audience amusement and my own!  The team of skilled puppeteers also included Bonnie McKenzie, Cait O'Donoghue, Calder Nicolson, Dean Field, Greta Punch, Layla Kermond and Luke Bartlett.  

Kudos to Musical Director Dean Mulholland and the exceptionally talented 23 piece orchestra. With its grand sweeping symphonic motifs, and shifting genres (including Broadway style show tunes, vaudeville, jazz and classical) the Wizard of Oz is a difficult score to pull off.  However, these musicians (all volunteers) have worked tirelessly to create a captivating musical experience equal to that of any professional orchestra. I was particularly impressed by the incredibly difficult brass and string sections in the 30's inspired swing number 'The Jitterbug'.  Incidentally, the movie release of The Wizard of Oz in 1939 was also the pinnacle year for Glenn Miller's big band. Vocal Director Maja Pearson has worked tirelessly with the large cast, ensuring that their performances are of the highest standard, effectively conveying the emotions and intentions of each character. The rich blend of voices from the off-stage 'heavenly choir' (used in the 'Overture', 'Munchkinland', 'Poppies', 'Act One finale' and 'Entr'acte'), created a transcendent and other-worldly experience. Choreographer Melissa Dance has injected her decades of experience into this dance heavy show. Just about every scene in Wizard requires some form of choreography, whether it be the Scarecrow or Tinman learning to walk again, the modern ballet representing the cyclone, Dorothy and her friends skipping down the yellow brick road, the dance of the poppies, or the joyful welcome dance of the townspeople of Emerald City. The dance highlight of the night was the swing inspired 'Jitterbug' which showcased the featured dancers quick footwork and infectious energy.  Fifteen year old Jermaine Ferguson as the lead 'jitterbug' was spellbinding to watch. I can't wait to see where his performing career takes him! The featured dancers included Angela Kenna, Ashley Rogers-Brigden, Iesha Kenna, Jess Bushell, Laura Vallence, Layla Kermond, Lillias McKellar, Megan Fish, Molly Carey and Naomi Medwin.  Another standout ensemble number was the delightful and whimsical 'The Merry Old Land of Oz'. It was well received by the audience, who almost leapt to their feet with appreciation for all the effort that had been put into this bubbly and colourful Act Two opener.

The Munchkinland sequences were a delight both visually and vocally.  There were many stand-out moments including the small in length, but big on cuteness songs performed by the Lullaby League (Henry Ezzy and Ollie Duffy) and the Lollipop Guild (Alex Gartland, Luka Price and Milo Pevitt). Other Munchkins included Scarlett Mills (Mayor), Paul Fimmel (Coroner), Sierrah Chuck (Barrister), Akira Fish-Laird (Fiddler), Jasmine Emeny (City Father), Abigail Medwin and Olivia Perry (School Teachers), Jane Duffy (Braggart) and Ace O'Dwyer (Munchkin). Their renditions of 'Ding Dong the Witch is Dead', 'Follow the Yellow Brick Road' and 'Munchkinland' were well sung, joyful and highly animated (until the Witch spoiled everything!!!). Other featured performers included Laura Vallence (Nikko, Captain of the Flying Monkeys) and Paul Howlett (Chief of the Winkies). The wildly amusing and mischievous girl group of Trees consisted of Brooke Chambers, Julie Price, Bonnie McKenzie, Bec Grey, Cait O'Donoghue and Laura Vallence. Their melodic and harmonious vocals during the Tinman's song 'If I Only Had a Heart' were hypnotic in quality. A special understudy evening show was included during the season. This highly acclaimed performance featured Jess Bushell (Dorothy), Zach Jervies (Hunk / Scarecrow), Matt Baker (Hickory / Tinman), Hugh Blemings (Zeke / Cowardly Lion), Jane Duffy (Aunt Em / Glinda), Dean Field (Professor Marvel / Wizard) and Bec Grey (Miss Gulch / Wicked Witch). Most of the cast (including the puppeteers and understudies) double as the ensemble, dancers, Winkies, Flying Monkeys or the townsfolk of Emerald City. 

The principal cast was first-rate!  Amelie Gleeson, as Dorothy Gale, is the epitome of a kind-hearted, brave and determined young woman. Her portrayal of the iconic character went from strength to strength with each scene. Her acting was genuine, authentic and unaffected. During Amelie's emotional rendition of 'Over the Rainbow' (complete with the beautiful verse that was cut from the movie) you could hear a pin drop. Afterwards, rapturous applause and cheering cemented the audience's nod of approval of a job well done! She could easily fill the ruby slippers of Judy Garland! Matt McNamara's gentle demeanor, comic timing and physicality makes him the perfect choice as the Scarecrow (aka Hunk). Matt's vocal range is smooth and well-controlled and his floppy movements and exaggerated gestures perfectly fitted his new found freedom and joy. His rendition of 'If I Only Had a Brain' possessed a magical quality that captivated the audience. Despite the heavy suit and make-up, Riley Holcombe brings a warmth and vulnerability to his character, the Tinman (aka Hickory).  Through his facial expressions and body language the Tinman still manages to show his feelings (despite not having a heart). Riley's singing voice has a rich tonal quality that is filled with emotion and sincerity. His melancholy song 'If I Only Had a Heart' emphasizes that love is what truly makes someone whole. Harry Price's casting as the Cowardly Lion (aka Zeke) is superb! With a mix of humour and vulnerability, his exaggerated expressions and comedic antics add a light-hearted touch to the story. Harry's voice took on a surprising strength and depth during his second solo 'If I Were King', which received three rounds of applause!  Emmalee Bell's portrayal of Glinda was exquisite! Her words were clear and precise, giving her both an authoritative air, and a sense of being all wise and knowing. Her vocals on 'Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are' and 'You're Out of the Dark' were ethereal, angelic and soared effortlessly. I couldn't help but think that Emmalee's performance was as good or better as actress Billie Burke in the 1939 movie. As Aunt Em, Bell depicts a woman a bit rough around the edges but still possesses a warm and nurturing nature. Annemaree Stonehouse was born to play the roles of Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West.  Her vast experience in theatre is evident by her acting techniques and strong stage presence. As Miss Gulch, Stonehouse carried herself with confidence, depicting a mean-spirited and vindictive woman. As the Wicked Witch she conveyed a sense of power and authority through her movements and gestures. Annemaree can now add to her CV her ability to laugh maniacally at an ear-splitting level of 150 decibels or more!  Paul Venzo had me in stitches from start to finish in his dual role as Professor Marvel and The Wizard. Both roles require a man who is both charismatic and a little crazy! With his ability to switch between different tones and accents and to place emphasis on certain words and phrases to convey his message effectively, Paul is the perfect fit for both roles. Ed Ezzy played Uncle Henry (aka Emerald City Guard) as a humble down to earth man who cares deeply for Dorothy. Because Uncle Henry is a simple farmer, Ed's natural delivery without any airs or graces suits the role. Ed had lots of fun with the character of the somewhat dimwitted Guard of Emerald City. He received much audience laughter due to his idiosyncrasies and quirky nature.

Director Heather Goddard (assisted by Vanessa Parkinson), the creative team, cast, crew and orchestra of Warrnambool Theatre Company and Holiday Actors are to be congratulated on producing a show worthy of many accolades! Speaking to audience patrons afterwards, many said it was the best show they'd seen on a Warrnambool stage. I'd have to agree! 

It took brains and courage to add new heart to a well-loved story like The Wizard of Oz and to bring it home to a new generation. Onward! 

Jonathan Cox

Photos: Greta Punch

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