The Wizard of Ourz: entertaining as a musical and fairyland play

The Wizard of Oz is very well known as a story repeatedly told in various forms and reproductions for over 100 years. It first appeared as a children’s novel by American L Frank Baum titled The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, which was enthusiastically received and saw emphatic success. This caused it to be dramatised by Baum and it found equal fame as a Broadway musical with the shortened title The Wizard of Oz opening in 1902. It occupied such a prominent place in the public domain, capturing the imagination of children and adults that the inevitable followed – it was made into a successful film by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1939 starring Judy Garland and winning Oscar awards.

The novel was a best-seller, the musical play has been inexhaustibly repeated, it was produced for television in 1956 and there have been countless reproductions, the film made back the millions spent to produce it after many re-releases (Wikipedia says it was MGM’s most expensive film at the time, that it is included on the “Best Movie” list, and became the most viewed motion picture on TV). It took one of the great classics of all times – Gone With The Wind to beat it for Best Picture in 1939. The Wizard of Oz is also known for two of its outstanding songs “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”

It is a fantasy, a noted work of the imagination with allegorical dimensions, obliquely commenting on the developing American society at the turn of the century. Baum was highly influenced by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), commonly called Alice in Wonderland, with quite glaring influences including the style of fairy-tale setting, the modernist form of social and political comment, the comparisons between Alice and Dorothy, their Wonderland/Land of Munchkins/Land of Oz environments, the creatures they encounter and the kind of Theatre of the Absurd in which they are cast.

20101003artsonsunday Most important among its thematic and symbolist strengths are the Scarecrow who has no brain, the Tinman who has no heart and the Lion who has no courage. Add to that, Dorothy who has no home, is lost and cannot return to her normal world. Add also their journey in search of the mythical Land of Oz ruled by a wizard who can fix everything. In the manner of Waiting for Godot (Beckett, 1957) and, of course, Alice in Wonderland, these are mythical and probably do not exist – the Wizard turns out to be a disappointment masquerading as a ruler. A wizard with powers? He has none and is probably in no better position than the Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion searching for brains, heart and courage.

20150426WizardImportantly, what he gives them are useless tokens which work only because they inspire their recipients who are empowered by belief in what they only thought they did not possess. Similarly, it is Dorothy who actually defeats the Wicked Witch of the West for the Wizard and who actually has the power to do so and to find her own way home (in the magic shoes she wears).

This is the famous play recently put on stage in Guyana, produced by Senoj Creations directed by Collette Jones-Chin. It had all of that long history, renown, reputation and familiarity to buoy it along, but those same previous successes that it would have to live up to. Jones-Chin chose to adapt it with the new name The Wizard of Ourz in performances at the Theatre Guild Playhouse and the National Cultural Centre.

“Ourz” is not a fantasy land, but is in Mahaica in Guyana, familiar native territory, a village where Dorothy lives, goes to sleep and has a dream in which she finds herself lost and embarking on the adventures played out in the plot of the play. This adaptation has little real meaning and does not work. Dramatic adaptation demands more than name changes and taking the heroine Dorothy out of Kansas, USA, where she is from originally, and placing her instead, in Mahaica, Guyana. In Baum’s original, she is swept away from home by a tornado that lands her in an unknown place unable to find her way home. In Jones-Chin’s version, after encountering a myriad of experiences and issues in her home village, Dorothy sleeps and dreams that she goes on the adventures.

Nothing else is altered. In fact, the play is prefaced by a lengthy narrative telling of Dorothy’s background in Mahaica. This story is narrated by an off-stage voice accompanied by video images on a screen. There was a problem at the Cultural Centre because it seems the stage crew did not fly in the screen, so the video was not seen. But it was a long piece of narration, too lengthy, and would have worked better if that story was acted out as part of the play. That is what might have given the adaptation more meaning, because it contained situations and characters which paralleled what actually happens in the fantasy.

The original Wizard of Oz story contains several complications and often superfluous turns of events, some of which Jones-Chin did not attempt to include, and they were not missed. But there were a few elements of the Wizard of Ourz that were wanting in clarity. The fantasy begins with a duel in which one wicked witch who ruled and terrorised the land was defeated and killed by another who then took her place. The duel was quite creatively presented, but its place in the plot was lost since its handling was not effective and the speech of the characters lacked clarity there, as well as very often throughout the play.

What worked very commendably and with telling effect was the play as a children’s production and as a fairy fantasy. This type of theatre is rare in Guyana and probably needed. A few of the kind may be recalled, including Cinderella and A Christmas Tale at the Theatre Guild with Simone Dowding, but these are few and far between.

The Wizard of Ourz certainly worked with the audiences and entertained them. It was appropriately and effectively designed – the set was spectacular, very colourful, established the atmosphere and was very well used. Similarly, considerable effort could be seen in the costuming which was equally colourful and careful in detail, particularly with the Scarecrow, Tinman, the Good Witch, the Wicked Witch, the Munchkins and the inhabitants of fantasy lands. These characters were considerably further enhanced by the detailed and particularly effective work put into make-up. The design and application of this helped create the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Wicked Witch. Much of the effect of the production emanated from these.

What also worked to a very high degree was the production as a musical. Again, musical drama in Guyana is not often attempted, and this one seemed to work with a mixture of simplicity and judicious handling of some technicalities. Musical Director Kimberly Samuels merged the music into the dramatic action quite seamlessly with very neat transitions, the way solos were performed and the use of the keyboard accompaniment. The lead actress Charisma Jones-Chin as Dorothy was able to carry the part not only with convincing acting, but as a singer. As a performing artist she managed the role credibly and was well suited for the performance of the songs. She carried the play as lead actress while being able to blend appropriately with others. One thing that intrigued the audience was the control Jones-Chin seemed to have over the pet goat – a young goat actually appeared on stage as a member of the cast.

As an antagonist to Dorothy, the Wicked Witch as played by LeTisha Da Silva had quite a demanding role. It called for multiple-layered action and much farce. Da Silva approached it with considerable energy and met the expectations of the audience without succumbing to too much slapstick and overplay. In fact, her dying moment was quite controlled and sensitive, showing her quite capable of handling the requirements of the role.

The same can be said for Keyon Heywood as the Scarecrow. He was a strong actor able to handle the subtleties of the role. His voice and speech were clear unlike those of some others, he knew the effective body language and dramatic action; and he was able to sing what was given to him. In a number of instances the performers had to negotiate their way around the songs given to the characters, as in the cases of other leads. Here musical director Samuels achieved compromises in the way they voiced rather than sang the songs where they had solo parts.

Ackeem Joseph was the cowardly Lion and from the beginning captured the nuances of this character. The performance was consistent and sensitive, sufficiently handling ranges and changes of emotions. Alongside him, there was a credible Tinman played by Akbar Singh who was able to produce a fitting personality that worked for the peculiar, quirky character. Mia Ritchie’s role as the Good Witch and Kemo Cort’s as the Wizard were not demanding and were both played with due competence.

The choruses acted by the Bosco Boys Orphanage and various others including Romina Softleigh, went through their various roles and changes with a marked, working rhythm in the earlier portion of the play. This rhythm gave the play an effective pace as it got going, but it fell away in the second half which slowed considerably. Nevertheless, the choruses worked very well musically, more of the impressive results of the musical work by Samuels and Brian Vale on the keyboard.

Although the original Wizard very quickly outgrew the children’s entertainment which was its beginning, that was a special strength in the Guyanese context. It was appreciated as a musical drama, whose adaptation was not at all necessary, and was surely welcomed by Guyanese as a fairyland play to take their children to.

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