From the cheerful brick road taped through the foyer leading to a fort-like mini Emerald City, to the bubbles floating from the rafters to announce Glinda’s arrival, the Waterdale production of The Wizard of Oz shows much care has been taken to personalise such a well-known show. Director Joseph Simms mentions the collaborative nature of the creative process, and Production Manager Bianca Simms likewise alludes to the fact that inclusion was a deciding factor in reviving the much-loved musical: sweet touches to delight young and old and everyone in between are evident everywhere as a result.

From the start, the balance of orchestra and singers was generally nicely maintained, with both coming through clearly, and some initial small issues with gain and reverb working themselves out as the show progressed. Of particular note in this production was some sublime attention to harmony singing, particularly by the Crows and Apple Trees, no doubt polished by Musical Director Melissa Karakaltsas. The talent and strength of the cast in general should hardly come as a surprise though, with so much experience in performing and/or teaching across the board.

Bethany Cusumano nailed the clear, twangy upper vocal register and emotionally rich speaking voice we associate with Judy Garland’s portrayal of Dorothy, whilst making the role her own at the same time. With sparse sets, the opening ‘Over the Rainbow’ solo number made Cusumano work uphill to fill the space, but the ensemble work and growing complexity of the rest of the show allowed her to demonstrate some very solid performance skills. The scene-stealing Toto (George Psalia) obviously enjoyed working with Cusumano, contentedly snuggling in her arms and receiving pats until his well-rehearsed exits.

Likewise, the other leads and supporting performers were also beautifully cast, and filled their roles with aplomb. Brooke Humphreys as Scarecrow/Hunk was rubbery, chipper, utterly delightful, and fortunately/unfortunately not in the least frightening. Humphreys confidently and cheerfully demonstrated both solid vocal and movement skills, not least through a surprise aerial move or two near the end. Onstage for a significant amount of the show, Humphreys demonstrated the beauty of applying an element of blind casting to shows, by seamlessly presenting the characterisation of her roles and leaving their gender in the Kansas dust.

Mark Cluning as Tin Man/Hickory filled the tin suit like a knight in shining armour, exuding warmth and good-naturedness from every bolt hole. Cluning was a shining example of the detailed work which went into ensuring one-liners were crisply delivered, and small sight-gags scattered throughout. A particularly amusing point was the stealing of the Winkie’s uniforms, with Cluning reduced to simply trotting across the scaffold with the far-too-small-to-wear uniform as something of a shield in front of him.

Omar Mustafa’s work in voice and theatre was particularly evident in his portrayal of the Cowardly Lion/Zeke. Mustafa’s vocal flexibility was an utter joy, ranging from cartoonish sobbing to operatic resonance, and painting marvellous aural picture of both emotion and storyline. Like the other leads, there were both elements of reference to the 1939 movie version most know and love, as well as varying degrees of personalisation of the role.

The supporting leads – all comprised of teachers! – were similarly competent in their roles. Jessica La Mari as Glinda/Auntie Em channelled the ever elegant and refined Jameela Jamil (the Good Place’s Tahani), gliding gracefully across the stage, smiling genially on all those around her. Tobiah Elliot playing Uncle Henry supported the belief that, like the casting of Brooke Humphreys as the Scarecrow, behind every strong man is a stronger woman. As the Head Guard though, Elliott was utterly hysterical, with over the top mannerisms and a very controlled attempt to deal with vocal repertoire now placed in a more challenging register.

As Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch of the West, Sarah Curruthers played valiantly against type: very much a Disney princess in villain’s clothing. Curruthers’ success in conjuring up sufficiently evil cackles was probably most evident in the fact that Toto seemed genuinely eager to escape her grasp! As Professor Marvel/The Wizard of Oz, Joseph D’Aspromonte showed deft comic timing, and the use of vocal effects with lighting and sound cues for the Wizard’s interactions with the travellers was particularly effective as well.

In addition, minimal set pieces were used well and included for example, some particularly lovely signwriting on Professor Marvel’s advertisement. The simplicity of this aspect did at times mean incidental music designed to cover more expansive stagecrew movement left performers hanging (which may also have been a result of the show speeding up, as it often does, with familiarity). There was some thoughtful use of gobos and rear projection at key times – the Twister images were so good it would have been lovely to see them projected on the cyclorama at the back of the stage, rather than being contained by the window shade of the Gale’s house.

As always with smaller productions, there are some compromises though. Hats on many characters, in an auditorium with tiered seating, made it challenging to connect with performer’s facial expressions at times. There were also times in which some of the costume choices seemed a little arbitrary (for example a very chic Miss Gulch – mostly in pink – seemed out of character for a ‘baddy’ unless we connect the colour to Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge perhaps?), rather than contributing to successful and cohesive characterisation. On the whole though, care seemed to have been taken to secure items of quality. Where unexpected costume choices did work particular were for example, for the citizens of Oz, where we got a lovely sense of the roaring ‘20s, complete with Charleston and very smart chorus-girl-style tap choreography reminiscent of the never-ending stream of Broadway shows of that era.

On that note, aside from the across the board solid casting of the show, the choreography and resultant excellent use of ensemble members was an unexpected highlight and delight of the production. Act Two’s ‘the Jitterbug’ often comes across as a somewhat pointless part of the narrative, followed up with the dirge of ‘the March of the Winkies’ (which even the Wicked Witch can’t stand). Choreographer Louisa D’Ortenzio’s use of the cast, the stage, different levels, varying ensemble sizes, and a variety of styles throughout meant that large numbers like ‘the Jitterbug’, ‘the Merry Old Land of Oz’ and the first big ensemble number of Act I, ‘Munchkinland’ were absolutely joyful to behold. Years of obvious training and skill in the ensemble was evident with judicious use of featured dancers to highlight this, and D’Ortenzio used everything from folk, tap, ballet, acrobatics, jazz, to even the good old box step to excellent effect across the board. For the first time in any version I’ve seen, the musical’s ‘Golden-Age’ label was realised most evidently with effective and thoughtful choreography.

The Wizard of Oz is a show with big shoes to fill, and clearly the creatives and cast of this Waterdale production gave a lot of brains, heart and courage in order to fill them.

REVIEW by CALYSTA MORGAN

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