Review “The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz” (House Theatre of Chicago): Good and Terrifying

The House Theatre of Chicago announces the final production in their 15th season, The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz.

To be clear, this isn’t Judy Garland’s “Wizard of Oz.” Although House Theatre recommends this production for ages 10 and up, I’m not as certain. I don’t want to spoil the dramatic roll-out so I’ll just simply say witches are not the only yellow brick road kill. Playwright Phillip Klapperich goes darker and deeper in his adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s classic. The term ‘witch slayer’ is thrown around to remind us that murder prompted the adventure. The heartless Tinman (played by a solid Jeremy Sonkin) continually threatens to kill or maim… even to his traveling companions. And the wicked witch (played by a deliciously malevolent AnJi White) is just a smug bitch.

To lighten the journey, Klapperich dribbles plenty of comedy into his sinister tale.  An adorable Joey Steakley is the beloved Toto.  Steakley, clad in black, has a pink dog hand puppet.  His mere presence adds a playful spirit as he refuses to budge, barks hysterically or licks his balls.  At one point, a projected montage (Joseph Burke, projections designer) illustrates Toto and Dorothy’s relationship.  Steakley narrates the flashback talking about ‘friends of Dorothy’ and his own loyalty to the girl who rescued him. Steakley brings a lot of heart and humor into his delivery. Another strong comedy standout is Christine Mayland Perkins (Scarecrow).  Perkins’ timing and deapan perfectly channels Ellen in ‘Finding Dory.’ She makes the scarecrow into an endearing and hilarious simpleton.  A regular on the House stage, Michael E. Smith (Cowardly Lion) brings his own signature comedic style.  Smith plays the lion with a cocky swagger and a mousy timidness. In the field of posies, he hysterically circles his resting spot with animal prowess.  The talented ensemble are all ready to buffoon-it-up for a laugh.  One of my favorite shticks is the ongoing arrival of Glinda (played by Amanda de la Guardia). Wherever they are looking for de la Guardia to appear, she shows up behind them.  Funny stuff!

Klapperich also cleverly adds depth. He expands on what it means to have a home, brain, heart, courage.  The familiar fantasy kicks off with Dorothy (played by Kara Davidson) applying to a school. She is trying to convince the school panel – White, Benjamin Sprunger (Oz), de la Guardia – that she knows who she is, what she wants and where she is going. A school admission process is a nice contemporary twist to represent Dorothy’s not feeling she belongs. Klapperich layers in plenty of one-to-grow-on learning moments for all the principals. It definitely adds depth and length to the story. In particular, the Tinman’s backstory is very dark.  Whereas an adult audience may appreciate learning about his bloody heartache, kids would get confused in the gory details.

The challenge of House’s OZ is that it wants to appeal to adults and kids over 10.  Director Tommy Rapley certainly orchestrates an innovative adventure.  The tornado sequence has the floorboard being ripped up to reveal the yellow brick road. In the most unforgettable scene, flying monkeys descend on Dorothy and friends.  They thrillingly swoop in and viciously attack. It’s equally impressive and intense. These action-oriented sequences would engage adults and kids.  It’s the character exposition and accompanying soliloquies that might make kids (and some adults) squirm in restlessness.  And it’s the unexpected ruthless acts of evil that could give kids (and some adults) disturbing nightmares.  Although I enjoyed THE GREAT AND TERRIBLE WIZARD OF OZ, it needs to be tighter and lighter for a family-friendly outing.

Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes includes an intermission

At the Chopin Upstairs Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.

Written by L. Frank Baum

Adapted by Phillip Klapperich

Directed by Tommy Rapley

March 17 – May 7

Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.,

Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. and Sunday evenings at 7 p.m.

For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit www.thehousetheatre.com or call 773.769.3832.

Production photos by Michael Brosilow

For more information and reviews on Chicago theatre, visit Theater in Chicago.

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