Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Regional Reviews

The Wizard of Oz
Albuquerque Little Theatre

Also see Brian's coverage of SoloFest2011

Maggie McClelland and
Abbie Gonzales

Lions and tigers, and bears! Oh my! The Wizard of Oz comes vividly to life at the Albuquerque Little Theatre (ATL). Grab an aisle seat. The action is bursting off the stage. I can handle Good Witch Glinda brushing past my shoulder, but the flying monkeys running down the aisles threw me back to childhood terror, er, excitement.

ATL has taken on Frank Gabrielson's 1942 adaptation of the 1939 movie—the one we all know with Judy Garland—was based on L. Frank Baum's novel. The stage production incorporates the music and lyrics from the movie, written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. The musical also incorporates background music by Herbert Stothart, the writer of the Oscar-winning original score of the 1939 movie.

I came to the musical with some skepticism. For most of those attending the production, even the youngest, The Wizard of Ozis a well known and nearly perfect movie—one of the best pieces of storytelling in cinema history. Who needs a live musical version? I brought along one of my kids as a test group for whether a staged version can find a place in our sentimental psyche.

There were a number of obvious questions. How would they handle the complicated set and design challenges? Going from the tornado on the cornfield plains to Munchkinland was difficult to imagine. The movie shifted from black-and-white in Kansas to the full color of Oz as Dorothy steps out of her house, saying, "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more." How can you handle that on a live stage? How would you portray Toto? And how could a local Dorothy compare to Judy Garland when it comes to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"? Would she seem like our beloved Dorothy?

All of these questions are answered positively by ATL's production, directed Ryan Jason Cook. Cook has a history as both director and actor in productions across Albuquerque's theater community. His hand here is solid across an energetic and lovely production that includes more than thirty actors switching roles from Munchkins to apple trees to green Emerald City citizens.

How do you stage the Wizard of Oz? Set designer Colby Martin Landers uses a combination of video and still photography integrated into a set that moves and turns and spins continually through the story. Yes, we see the shadows of stage hands frequently (much like seeing the Wizard behind the curtain), but the classic story is so strong and so well delivered the visible seams are not distracting.

Maggie McClelland as Dorothy has to prove herself early. One of the big challenges of the role comes in the first scene with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," the signature song from one of the twentieth century's greatest vocalists. McCelland makes it look easy with her strong, clear voice. She delivers a pitch-perfect Dorothy throughout, no easy task given that she's in virtually every scene. This surprising performance is the Sandia Prep student's community theater debut.

As the dog Toto, a child actor is dressed in a dog costume. Young Abbie Gonzales does a fine job. Like Dorothy, she's in nearly every scene.

Dorothy's pals constitute another critical element that could potentially send the production south. You mess up the Scarecrow, Tin Man, or Lion, and you blow the play. I almost couldn't watch. But early on when we are first introduced to this lovable trio as farm hands, it becomes clear these roles are in sure hands. Larry Joseph Aguilar as the Scarecrow plays it sweetly appropriate. Warren Asa Wilgus as the steadfast Tin Man is solid. Stephan Balling as the Cowardly Lion is simply outstanding. This is Balling's second go-round as the Lion, and he delivers with all of Burt Lahr's gusto and comedy.

This production happily revives "The Jitterbug," a wonderful dancing scene famously (or infamously) deleted from the 1939 movie. The dancing and singing is strong throughout the production. This adaption leans heavier on song and dance numbers than the movie—the stage play's way of making up for lack of cinematic effects. Another successful technique to help bring this story alive is the practice of extending the stage into the aisles. This is real crowd pleaser, especially for an audience with plenty of kids.

Hats off to the artistic and technical crew: choreographer Cindy Sikelianos, stage manager Becca Hudgins, film and production designer David C. Valdez, hair and make-up designer Leah Cooper, music director Zack Kear, costume designer Bernadette Vallejos-Michaels, and lighting and sound designer Joshua Bien. They deliver well.

All in all, it's a terrific show. They get the singing right, the dancing right, the pizzazz right. Most of all, they get the feel of the story right. I didn't find myself missing the movie. Plus, the presentation won a hearty thumbs up from my discerning kid.

This production of The Wizard of Oz is part of ATL's Family Series, a selection of full-length kid-friendly shows. Next up is Tom Sawyer, running September 2 through 18.

The Wizard of Oz, directed by Ryan Jason Cook, is a Frank Gabrielson adaption of L. Frank Baum's novel with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. At the Albuquerque Little Theatre, 224 San Pasquale SW, through July 31. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sunday at 2 pm. General admission for ages 13 and above is $15. Tickets for children under 13 are $10. For reservations, call 505-242-4750, ex. 2 or visit

Photo: Albuquerque Little Theatre

-- Rob Spiegel

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