The Wizard of Oz from St. James Players a welcome return to family theatre

Wonderful production of classic musical runs until November 20 at Showplace in Peterborough

In its magical production of The Wizard of Oz, St. James Players brings the beloved characters to life with Robert Hedge as the Tin Man, Keevin Carter as the Cowardly Lion, Hope Clarkin as Dorothy, and Drew Mills as the Scarecrow (photo: St. James Players)
In its magical production of The Wizard of Oz, St. James Players brings the beloved characters to life with Robert Hedge as the Tin Man, Keevin Carter as the Cowardly Lion, Hope Clarkin as Dorothy, and Drew Mills as the Scarecrow (photo: St. James Players)

There are few stories as iconic as that of The Wizard of Oz. Written in 1900 by American writer L. Frank Baum, the story of Kansas farm girl Dorothy Gale and her misfit companions reached universal audiences when MGM released its film version in 1939.

Since then, The Wizard of Oz has taken many forms on television, film, literature and stage. Filled with imagination and magic, The Wizard of Oz is easily the most famous and important fantasy story in American fiction.

This week, it’s St. James Players’ turn to put their spin on this familiar tale, as director Leigh Doughty takes her company down the yellow brick road in a show as familiar as the film it’s adapted from, but fresh enough so you can fall in love with the story all over again.

Little needs to be said about the plot of The Wizard of Oz. The show doesn’t deviate too far from the film we all know and love.

When Dorothy Gale (Hope Clarkin) runs away from home with her little dog Toto, she gets swept up in a tornado and is dropped in the Land of Oz where she goes on a quest to find the all-powerful Wizard (Keith Goranson) in hopes that he’ll send her home. Along the way she picks up three unlikely companions with their own ailments: the Scarecrow (Drew Mills) who needs a brain, the Tin Man (Robert Hedge) who needs a heart, and the Cowardly Lion (Keevin Carter) who needs courage. Together, they battle the Wicked Witch of the West (Rosemarie Barnes) and encounter many magical creatures such as Munchkins, the Flying Monkeys, aggressive trees, and the enchanting Glinda the Good Witch of the North (Christie Freeman).

All the songs that we know and love are there, including “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”, “We’re Off to See the Wizard” and, of course, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.

I admit I was slightly cynical going into this show. I know the movie inside and out, and I’ve seen different versions of this show on stage before, and I know I probably will again. However, once inside of Showplace Performance Centre, with a delighted audience all around me, I began to realize that perhaps not all of the audience has the same history with the story as I do.

Once a yearly television event, the last time that The Wizard of Oz aired on primetime television was in 1991. Since then, there’s an entire generation of kids who have never seen the film. Many youngsters in the audience were meeting these beloved characters for the first time and were captivated. That in itself makes this show a win.

But to those like me who know the story inside and out, it was like reuniting with old friends. I found myself anticipating favorite scenes and characters, anticipating how this production would spin the moments of The Wizard of Oz that I love. I was never disappointed.

Hope Clarkin finds a perfect trio of costars in Keevin Carter, Robert Hedge, and Drew Mills (photo: St. James Players)
Hope Clarkin finds a perfect trio of costars in Keevin Carter, Robert Hedge, and Drew Mills (photo: St. James Players)

Stepping into the ruby slippers in the role of Dorothy Gale is not an easy task, especially when competing against the collective memory of Judy Garland’s iconic performance. However, Hope Clarkin boldly takes the role without intimidation and makes the audience forget that anybody else ever had the role.

I first spotted Hope in her high school production of Aida in 2015 , where I mentioned her big voice and talent. I’ve seen her in a few shows since, but this is the role where Hope finally gets to flex her strong stage presence and powerful vocal talents and take centre stage as the star of the show.

One of a new crop of actors popping up on the Peterborough stage, I love that Hope is continuing on her path to becoming one of Peterborough’s favourite musical performers.

Hope finds a perfect trio of costars in Drew Mills, Robert Hedge, and Keevin Carter. Colourful, witty, and pitch perfect in their comic timing, each actor puts his own spin on these iconic characters. Drew Mills is whimsical and funny as the Scarecrow, while Robert Hedge is charming as the Tin Man. But Keevin Carter gets the big laughs of the night as the Cowardly Lion. Partially this is because he is the comic relief and gets all the best lines, but Keevin also plays it up to the audience who truly adores him. Together, they make a delightful trio to support Dorothy.

Now I’ll admit that my favorite character has always been the Wicked Witch of the West, and Rosemarie Barnes delivers. Under special makeup designed by Shelly Moody, Rosemarie lurches and cackles and gives a strong performance, but draws back just enough so that she isn’t just a Margaret Hamilton knock off. She really does bring an air of menace to the show and plays the perfect over-the-top villain. She also makes the perfect foil to the beautiful and angelic like Christie Freeman, who seems to glide onto the stage in the role of Glinda during key moments of the show. As the magical ying and yang of Oz, Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West maintain their positions as show favourites.

And of course there is The Wizard himself, played to perfection by Keith Goranson. Keith does grandiose just as well as he does shifty, and has double duty as the “great and powerful Oz” and “the man behind the curtain.” A wonderful character role for a fun character actor.

I also want to give a big special shout out to Daisy the dog, a real delight. One of the unique things about this show is St. James Players bravely recruited a real dog to play Toto. Allowing herself to be passed off amongst different cast members, and always obediently exiting stage right, Daisy is a well-behaved and well-trained dog who adds a touch of realism and mirth to the production.

Coordinated by Debbie Piper, the costumes are remarkable and creative and enhance the show's visual impact (photo: St. James Players)
Coordinated by Debbie Piper, the costumes are remarkable and creative and enhance the show’s visual impact (photo: St. James Players)

But it takes an entire company to create the land of Oz, and an eclectic cast of colourful characters sing, dance, do quick changes, get in and out of makeup, and change roles as quickly as they can change costumes. The result is a high energy company who helps makes the magic of The Wizard of Oz come alive on the stage. It’s an impressive spectacle and I was always taken by each set of costumes that would mark the next step in the show’s progression. The costumes in this production, coordinated by Debbie Piper, are remarkable and creative and enhance the show’s visual impact.

Perhaps most unexpected is that The Wizard of Oz is one of the more inventive technical shows of the year, thanks to the backscreen projection by Nate Axcell. The show has barely any set to speak of except for the occasion prop piece. Instead, the entire land of Oz is projected on a screen behind the actors in a way that’s so effective you hardly realize there’s no physical set at all.

From the haunted forest to the field of poppies to the wind storm that blows Dorothy away, this effect works extremely well — in fact, better than any set could provide. Combined with creative lighting design by John Robinson and Rael Corkery (most notably during the Wicked Witch’s entrances), the technical aspects of this show are incredible.

The Wizard of Oz runs until November 20 at Showplace Performance Centre (poster: St. James Players)
The Wizard of Oz runs until November 20 at Showplace Performance Centre (poster: St. James Players)

While not cutting-edge musical theatre, The Wizard of Oz could be one of the most important shows St. James Players has put on in a long time. In the past few years, the theatre company has attempted to reinvent itself by straying away from the family-oriented productions for which they’re best known. In retrospect, Les Misérables may have been too grandiose to appeal to all audiences, and The Producers was strictly adult-only fare.

But The Wizard of Oz takes St. James Players back to the basics with a well-produced piece of theatre suitable for all ages. Audience members surrounding me ranged from the age of five to 85. As I was walking out of the theatre, I listened to a seven-year-old girl reiterate the plot points of the show she just saw to her father, while an elderly man smiled at his wife and said “That was a really enjoyable show.”

In my opinion, that’s the experience a St. James Players show is supposed to bring to the community, and it’s the main reason this show works so well. If St. James Players continues to focus on family-oriented theatre, I believe they can continue to hit it big again and again.

With a relatively short run time, the St. James Players production of The Wizard of Oz is a show worth seeing. It’s a charming and magical production from a company of talented people. Leigh Doherty and her crew have put together something very special.

The Wizard of Oz runs until November 20th with performances at 7:30 p.m. on November 18th and 19th, and performances at 2 p.m. on November 19th and 20th. Tickets are $27 for adults, $24 for seniors, and $17 for students and can be purchased at the Showplace box office or online at www.showplace.org.

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