Theatre Review: THE WIZARD OF OZ by Quintessence Theatre Group

The Wizard of Oz is a big show. It’s also rather well-known. Staging a production of The Wizard of Oz, anywhere, includes several promises to your audience. They will expect a twister and a house falling on a witch. They will expect munchkins. They will expect a yellow brick road. They will expect an awe-inspiring Wizard. And so on. Quintessence Theatre Group approaches these challenges head-on with built-in limits: limited space, limited cast, limited budget, and they accomplish them by employing full use of any theater’s greatest asset: the audience’s unlimited imagination.

Artistic director Alex Burns laid these requirements at the feet of Quintessence’s Artistic Associate Lee Cortopassi, who had only directed one show before, Aesop’s Fables, a wholly different show from what Oz was expected to be, in size and scope.

The opening set, the “Kansas” set, was drab as drab can be. Light-gray floor and backdrop, with a light-gray dollhouse mounted on a stick. The characters we meet, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry and Dorothy, as well as Miss Gulch and others, are all decked in grays and light blues and sepia tones, and you feel like you are indeed watching a black-and-white movie. Set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge never veers from this simplicity, however, even after the frenetic rainbow collage that is the Land of Oz is revealed. Aside from pieces brought in and out as needed (a door here, a table there) and the occasional shifting backdrop, there is nothing else but a floor and a wall, burdening the actors and director with bringing Oz to life for us.

And they are up for it! Leigha Kato, who plays Dorothy Gale, leads off with “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” setting the table for the rest of the show. She delivers it with vulnerability and wonder, never veering over the top, which is important since none of the actors in this old theater are amplified. The trio of Andrew Betz, Doug Hara and Jered McLenigan as the Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion respectively, give clinics in physical performance, contorting their bodies and faces in such a way that they themselves are set pieces. And when they all enter the Emerald City, which happens by the simple rotation of a door, we can see all of the magnificent buildings and wonders reflected in their eyes.

Not to be outdone, the ensemble of Jessica Money, Michael Liebhauser and Chloe Mollis-McBride are indispensable as all of the Munchkins, the flying monkeys, the Winkies, crows, and so much more. And a special mention must go to 13-year-old Susannah Hughes, who plays Toto, in character the entire show, reacting to everything and everyone as a dog would. I enjoyed watching her eyes dart around and head move up and down when she could have been motionless and no one would have noticed either way. E. Ashley Izard was more frightening as Miss Gulch than she was as the Wicked Witch of the West, which makes an important point about reality vs fantasy – that as cruel as we might imagine people can be, they have the capacity to be crueler than we can imagine.

The music was a combination of pre-recorded orchestral pieces and a live “two piece three piece band,” led by Tom Fosnocht. The change from one to the other was used to jarring effect, also bridging the gaps between fantasy and reality, regardless of if the characters were in Oz or in Kansas. After all, even in a fantasy word, if you’re scared, you’re scared, and if you’re sad, you’re sad – the body doesn’t care if it’s a dream of not. Alex Burns’s sound design was critical due to the lack of amplification, and there wasn’t a moment where I couldn’t hear the characters regardless of where they were (and they do use the entire space).

I spoke with a five-year-old after the show, and he understood everything that happened, and he had excellent reactions and questions. He was already familiar with the movie, but he was not disappointed in or confused by the scarcity of set. He saw and heard everything that the actors and creative team wanted him, and everyone, to see and hear. Flying houses, magic slippers, dark castles, fields of poppies, lions, tigers and bears, all present and accounted for.

The Wizard of Oz runs through December 29 at the Sedgwick Theater, 7147 Germantown Ave, Philly. For tickets and info, visit https://www.quintessencetheatre.org/the-wizard-of-oz

Photos by Linda Johnson

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