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CdA Theatre’s ‘Oz’ is true to the fun

Sat., June 11, 2011, midnight

Witches soar across the stage on bicycles. Flashpots spew flame in front of the eerie green visage of the great and powerful Oz. Flying monkeys do aerial acrobatics.

The Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre does an impressive job of re-creating many of the thrills of the beloved 1939 movie version of “The Wizard of Oz” – and director Kasey RT Graham does a fine job of re-creating the music, the comedy and the drama as well.

Yes, you’ll hear those old familiar – yet still terrifying – words, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too.”

Is it better than watching the movie? That would be sacrilege to even suggest, but it’s safe to say that it provides many of the same pleasures: an endearing Dorothy, a cute Toto, three funny sidekicks, a candy-colored visual world and a story that tugs at your heart. If you’re lucky enough to have one.

And naturally, it has both the drawbacks and the strengths of live theater.

The drawbacks? Even with the CdA Summer Theatre’s often astonishing production values, the magic can never be as seamless as in a movie, even one from 1939. By that I mean: Yes, if you look hard enough, you’ll see the wires (so don’t look too hard).

The strengths: The music is live, Dorothy and the witches are right there in front of you, and somehow, a live flashpot and a live witch-on-a-bicycle seem extra frightening, wires or not.

With its bright, cartoony sets by Michael McGiveney, its fanciful costumes by Susan Berger and its dramatic lighting design by Brian Ritter, this show demonstrates the technical prowess that the CdA Summer Theatre has developed over the last two decades.

Yet it also shows off the theater’s more subtle strength: casting.

It all starts with Dorothy, played with earnest, adorable innocence by Mallory King. King looks a little like Judy Garland, and she has an exceptionally pure, clear soprano voice, put to best use in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Here, this is more than just a rendition of an old standard. It’s the emotional setup for the entire saga.

Then there are the three sidekicks: Christopher Moll as Hickory/Tin Man, Cameron Lewis as Hunk/Scarecrow and Roger Welch as Zeke/Cowardly Lion. They are just as funny and endearing as they are in the movie – and I can’t give any higher praise than that. Welch, whose day job is the producing artistic director of the theater, did an amazing job of channeling Bert Lahr, complete with blustery baritone and big cowardly sniffles.

The Travolta sisters get to play two of the best roles in the show – Ellen Travolta as Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch and Margaret Travolta as Auntie Em/Glinda. Margaret made Glinda into a symbol of pure good, floating serenely on stage in her bubble. Ellen used her considerable comic skills to turn the Wicked Witch into a vaudeville-style witch – undoubtedly evil, but one we could laugh at as well as fear. When she’s not issuing dastardly threats, she’s streaking high above the stage.

And then there were the Munchkins, all 28 of them, all local children, all dressed up in gumdrop colors. They made “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” into infectious fun, and I was particularly taken with the Lullaby League and the Lollipop Guild.

Another strength of the CdA Summer Theatre is also on display: the pit orchestra. It’s a 19-piece orchestra, which is probably double the size that Graham had to work with when he was musical director for a national tour of this same show.

The orchestra sounded bright and jaunty, in classic MGM movie style, under the direction of Chris Thompson. I don’t think it was necessary to amplify the orchestra quite so much – after all, a 19-piece orchestra has plenty of power by itself. Still, the music sounded vivid and alive.

This stage version adds a few numbers cut from the movie, the most significant of which is the “Jitterbug,” in which the Wicked Witch turns our heroes into a bunch of finger-waving Cab Calloways. The show also has some new and updated dialogue.

But mostly, it’s the “Oz” you know and love.

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