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Theatre Charlotte’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’ Lands on Queens Road

Young cast offers a fresh take

The lion, tin man, scarecrow and Dorothy stand side by side in The Wizard o Oz
Off the see the Wizard (from left): Kyle J. Britt, Ashley Benjamin, Devon Ovall and Cameron Vipperman. (Photo by Janae Britt)

With her rustic picnic basket, her toy dog Toto, her beribboned pigtails and her iconic gingham dress, the 1939 movie version of L. Frank Baum’s imperishable heroine, Kansas-born Dorothy Gale, was designed to closely echo the Dorothy found on the pages of Baum’s 1900 novel. She was conceived in the lineage of Little Red Riding Hood and Lewis Carroll’s Alice as a little girl — credulous and easily surprised or disappointed.

Judy Garland was 16 years old when she began shooting The Wizard of Oz at MGM Studios. Her sub-5-foot stature bridged some of the age gap, but director Victor Fleming and the MGM braintrust didn’t stop there, trussing Garland up to hide her curves. 

All of this subterfuge (some would call it barbarity) was logical only because Hollywood, suspicious of fantasy and children’s fiction, wanted to reassure us that Oz, The Wizard, the Witches, the Winkies, and the ruby slippers were all nothing more than a little girl’s dream.

Noel Langley’s screenplay, revised chiefly by Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf, went to extraordinary lengths to frame Dorothy’s adventures as a dream. The celluloid version supplied the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, Glinda, the Wicked Witch, and The Wizard with Kansas counterparts she will transform into Ozians. Baum never created a Miss Gulch or a Professor Marvel. 

In fact, when he adapted The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for the stage in 1902, Baum actually expelled Toto and the Wicked Witch from his cast — and did not permit the Lion to speak.

Langley obviously hasn’t gotten enough credit for his contributions to Oz mythology. The whole preamble to the cyclone and Oz is his, along with the wholesome welcome home to Kansas that crowds the screen with patronizing adults. Aunt Em is the only person who greets Dorothy in the book, where the ending is dispatched in less than 75 words. 

Dorothy finds a new farmhouse that Uncle Henry has built to replace the old one that killed the Wicked Witch of the East. No question in Baum’s mind: Dorothy has been away to a real place in real time.

When John Kane adapted The Wizard of Oz for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987, he went with Langley’s version of the story. Not only were the songs by Harold Arlen and the lyrics by Edgar “Yip” Harburg brought along for the ride, so was “The Jitterbug,” an Arlen-Harburg song that didn’t make the film’s final cut. 

Cameron Vipperman as Dorothy (left) with Devon Ovall as the Scarecrow. (Photo by Janae Britt)

If anything, Kane’s additions to the screenplay served to underscore the idea that Oz was a dream, dropping more key words and phrases that linked the magical land to Kansas. Auntie Em and Uncle Henry were added to the roster of Kansans who change costumes and join Dorothy in Oz.

That’s the version we have now as Theatre Charlotte kicks off its 96th season with a rousing trek down the familiar Yellow Brick Road, which premiered on Sept. 8 and will run through Sept. 24. After her TC debut in 2022 at Camp North End during the company’s vagabond season, Allison Modafferi Brewster directs for the first time at the Queens Road barn. 

Leaning heavily on projection designs by Alison Nicole Fuehrer to navigate the geographies of Kansas and Oz, Modafferi and her cast of 40 (plus nine “Ruby” Munchkins who timeshare with the “Emerald Cast” that performed on opening night) heartily buy into the notion that Oz is a dreamland.

Castmembers in Theatre Charlotte's 'The Wizard of Oz' dance on stage
Cast members in Theatre Charlotte’s ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ (Photo by Janae Britt) 

But in choosing Winthrop University senior Cameron Vipperman as the lead, Modafferri and costume designer Rachel Engstrom are pushing back against the idea that Dorothy must be a child. Or, to cite the range prescribed for auditions in 2006, when Central Piedmont presented this Wizard as their first summer extravaganza at the newly built Halton Theater, between the ages of 14 and 17.

Gone are the ribbons, the pigtails, and the gingham dress, though Vipperman’s do does sport a couple of fairly subtle weaves. Nor does this energetic production go along with the notion that Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West must be gnarly old crones. Wielding her broomstick in a rather gladiatorial black outfit, Mary Lynn Bain was quite the action figure as the Wicked One. No corny cone hat for her!

Unless you’ve scouted productions down at Winthrop and Matthews Playhouse, neither of these antagonists will be a familiar name. Casting is no less adventurous for Dorothy’s Yellow Brick pickups. 

As the Scarecrow, Devon Ovall comes to the Queens Road barn by way of Northwest School of the Arts. Ashley Benjamin, the first Tin (wo)Man we’ve ever seen in Charlotte, seems to be freshly arrived from Georgia based on her digital bio.

Only Kyle J. Britt can boast previous Queen City exploits prior to his present turn as the Cowardly Lion, having appeared at the barn in last year’s Christmas Carol as the Ghost of Christmas Present (and has served as TC’s resident photog this year, as showcased in a few of my own 2023 reviews). 

Noticeably younger than any Oz supplicants you’ll ever see again in an adult production — so close to Dorothy’s age that they seem to be her pals and never her protectors — this youthful trio is remarkably appealing. Ovall flops around and collapses with infectious glee as Scarecrow. Aided by strategic sound effects, Benjamin brought plenty of creaky stiffness to the Tin Man, but she often needed stronger miking.

The Witch points her wand threateningly at the four protagonists onstage
Mary Lynn Bain as the Wicked Witch (far right). (Photo by Janae Britt)

Rachel Engstrom’s costume designs for these two weirdos are masterworks of simplicity, but her greatest triumph may be her Lion, little more than a wig gone wild and a couple of fringed sleeves. 

This is sufficient armament for Britt to make delicious meals of both his Cowardly highlights, blustering his “top-to-bottomous” bravado with gusto and regally rolling his r’s on “King of the Forest” — with an extra-chesty baritone.

Modafferri’s infusions of diversity and gender-switching don’t stop with Benjamin. Brandie Hill brings a righteous gospel flavor to Aunt Em and especially to Glinda the Good, while D. Laverne Woods brings out the gypsy in Professor Marvel and the sass in the Wizard. 

Glinda the Good sings in the foreground while cast members back her up behind her onstage
Brandie Hill as Glinda the Good. (Photo by Janae Britt)

Darren Spencer as Uncle Henry is a softer, more indulgent contrast to Aunt Em’s law-abiding rigor, making him the obvious choice to play the old guard softy at Oz’s palace.

Mostly at the service of Fuehrer’s projection designs, set designer Chris Timmons’ neutral-toned slabs don’t quite allow the colors to pop until we first espy the poppy field and Emerald City beyond. The cityscape lingered a few seconds too long as we transitioned from Oz to the wicked West, my first inkling that there was more than one projector in play. 

The more concerning miscue on opening night was the stage crew’s failure to secure the flight of stairs leading up to the platform where the Wicked Witch makes her immortal “What a world!” exit.

Poor Bain took a nasty little tumble trying to get up there, nearly breaking her neck before she had a chance to melt, prompting Vipperman to be very careful when she climbed up after her. The wonderful reversal was still effective.

That climactic scene cannot be withheld from an adoring public, so Timmons had to choose between the complexities of using a trapdoor in the middle of his stage or building a platform. The latter solution is likely simpler, but its hazards were frightfully exposed last Friday. 

No doubt all the furniture moving and fastening will go better this week as the run resumes.

Technically, the Theatre Charlotte version of The Wizard is nowhere near as dazzling as the CP version of 2006 — when the Witches, the Wizard, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Miss Gulch, and a cow all flew and Glinda floated gloriously in a bubble. Such lavishness is probably the main reason why CP shitcanned its Summer Theatre programming this season after four decades of serving as the best launching pad for emerging professional talent that Charlotte has ever seen.

Musically, the lack of a live orchestra dulls the brilliance of Herbert Stothart’s scoring, but music director Matt Primm and his talented cast rescue things nicely. After a shaky start, when Vipperman was too studiously on the beat, “Over the Rainbow” came to full bloom. 

The Wizard looks through a hole in the wall at the four protagonists
The climactic scene in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ (Photo by Janae Britt)

Surrounded by the loosey-goosey shenanigans of Ovall and Britt, Vipperman blossomed even more in Oz. Pepper Alpern as Toto remained a wild card. Nobody knew what the mutt would do next, behaving, barking, or otherwise stealing focus.

Engstrom and choreographer Vanessa Zabari held a deck full of winning cards to counteract this earthbound production’s lack of aerial aces. Dance numbers greatly enlivened the arrivals in Oz and the Emerald City when a bevy of Munchkins, a Youth Ensemble, and an Adult Ensemble strutted their stuff, captained by Aidan Conway. 

Punctuating the action at key moments with assorted tumbles, somersaults, and splits, Conway was also a pro-grade soloist when he wasn’t fronting the ensembles.

Thanks to Engstrom, Emerald City was a sea of multitudinous greens, and the changes of dresses for the adorable Munchkins were more than enough to convince me anew that Oz truly is a merry old land. But for the next two months, I’d be quite content if I didn’t see another damn polka dot.

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