Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The Wizard of Oz
Also see Patrick's recent review of Something Rotten!
If you've seen the movie (and I know precisely one person who has not), you'll be familiar with the story: Dorothy (Chanel Tilghman) is sucked by a tornado into Oz, where her house lands on and kills the Wicked Witch of the East (in this production, a large inflatable T. Rex), freeing the Munchkins but earning her the wrath of the Wicked Witch of the West (Courtney Walsh), and sending her on a quest to find her way home. She will meet new friends along the way and be assisted by Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Katrina Lauren McGraw).
The story may be the same, but believe me, you have never seen a Wizard of Oz like this one. That inflatable T. Rex standing in for a witch? That's only the start of the homespun stage magic director/choreographer Sam Pinkleton and scenic and costume designer David Zinn have in store for you. The munchkins? Rather than casting little people (or children) in those roles, they are "portrayed" by dozens of household objects adorned with plastic googly eyes to anthropomorphize them. Phones, umbrellas, rakes, brooms, chairs, an ice chest ... they all become munchkins. The Mayor of Munchkin land is a printer–which powers one of the funniest gags of the night.
The magic of this amazing production is how the ACT team manage to tell a story virtually everyone in the audience knows while still surprising us at every turn. Simple but incredibly inventive stagecraft, hilarious interpretations by a skilled cast, outlandish (in the best ways) costumes, and an overriding sense of riotous joy combine to make this Wizard of Oz something all new and all wonderful.
In addition to the visual delights of the show–and there are many–it's the cast who make this production really sing. Chanel Tilghman plays Dorothy with innocent, wondering eyes, but the heart of a superhero. (Indicated, in part, by her wearing a t-shirt with the Batman logo.) McGraw gives Aunt Em some of the flavor of a hardworking farm wife, passing out Oreos to the audience, claiming they are "just baked," but transforms into a charming yet sassy Glinda, wrapped in enough pink tulle to clothe an army of drag queens. Courtney Walsh is marvelous as both Miss Gulch, the nasty neighbor who wants Toto "destroyed," and the Wicked Witch of the West, whom she portrays as a sort of uber-Karen dishing out her flavor of justice and vengeance. Her neon purple wig (with its late 1950s/early '60s flip curls) and white cowgirl outfit is perfect for the character, for it clashes with her venal nature in a way that says "I'm scary, but also incredibly insecure."
The troika of Dorothy's new-found Ozite friends–the Scarecrow (Danny Scheie), the Tin Man (Darryl V. Jones), and the Cowardly Lion (Cathleen Ridley)–have each found ways of making these iconic characters something all their own. Ridley's Lion is appropriately tense and jittery, but as lovable as a lap cat. Jones plays the Tin Man with a sense of authority and power–and with such tremendous heart that it seems impossible his character would lack one. But my favorite performer of the night might be Danny Scheie. His snarky, mischievous, slightly catty take on the Scarecrow is so hilarious (and his brightly colored laced/crocheted getup so weirdly wonderful) that he will make you forget all about Ray Bolger.I've barely scratched the surface of the theatrical wonders on display in this production, but you should know that–should you feel the need to flee to a magical world (if only for 160 minutes)–ACT has created an absolutely perfect escape.
The Wizard of Oz runs through June 25, 2023 at American Conservatory Theater, Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$110. For tickets and information, please visit www.act-sf.org.