When I heard that the Pleasant Hill-based dance school Funkmode was doing the choreography for Diablo Theatre Company’s new version of The Wizard of Oz, I thought “genius.”
A Scarecrow doing a wave or the Tin Man doing the robot.
In collaborating with Funkmode, Diablo Theatre Company has found a way to infuse this charming, traditional musical, based on the classic 1939 film, with some flash and a contemporary feel. DTC's The Wizard of Oz opens this Friday at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center for the Arts.
Being the enterprise reporter I could be, I asked for permission to sit in on one of Funkmode’s kids’ classes so I could write a story for Diablo’s July 2009 issue. The class that founders and teachers Cara Young and “Mighty” picked for me was a break-dance class for boys. Yeah, a dance class that boys would actually get into.
The Funkmode class took place at the school's headquarters, which happen to be in Diablo Theatre Company's Firehouse Studios on Oak Park Boulevard. I sat with Cara during the class, as she explained how the boys liked the spontaneity and few rules.
I don’t remember the music the half-dozen boys, 11 and under, practiced their moves to: Jay-Z, Timbaland or the Black-eyed Peas. Something slammin’ and jammin’. I was bobbing my head and chair dancing to the music. A part of me was tempted by the idea of taking one of Funkmode’s adult classes, which are designed for non-dancers like me who want a really good workout. Alas, my busy schedule kept me from signing up at the time.
Two years later, I was back at the Firehouse Studios and once again sitting with Cara, this time as she watched a rehearsal of the Wizard.
Diablo Theatre Company rents out space in the Firehouse facilities to Funkmode, and it was this neighborly proximity that got DTC and Funkmode folks talking over the past several years about collaborating on a musical. The Wizard came up as a production possibility for DTC; Funkmode was on board.
“This was a perfect show,” Cara said. “It appeals to young people. It’s a classic story. Our demographic is working with adults and children.”
In a second-story rehearsal studio, Cara was watching the cast, which included some of her adult, teen and young Funkmode dancers executing some hip hop moves while performing some classic Wizard songs: "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead"; "If I Only Had a Brain," "The Merry Old Land of Oz."
But don’t worry: this Wizard is essentially the Wizard you know: Dorothy in her blue gingham dress, singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," a cute little dog named Toto, and a Technicolor Munchkinland and Emerald City. It's not as though Cara or Wizard's director Daren AC Carollo decided to reinvent the show with, say, 2011 urban-style sets and costumes.
Cara knew better.
“People are coming with expectations,” Cara said. “You have parents or grandparents who grew up watching the movie and are expecting a certain thing. Then you have some children who’ve never seen the movie, and they’re coming with no judgment. … This is a twist on the classic version.”
If anything, the infusion of funk and athletic dance moves is strategic and even subtle in some places. Overall, they make the musical numbers pop even more and ramp up the show to a Pixar-movie pace. Under Cara's guidance, the Scary Flying Monkeys also get all loose and menacingly simian.
“We wanted to create a show with high energy, and we want to make the dancers sweat, but we don’t want the dance to overpower the story,” she said.
From what I saw in rehearsal, Cara and her Funkmode crew have found the right balance. The show is high energy but it’s still a sweet fantasy tale with universal messages about friendship, loyalty and how there’s no place like home.
For more information about Diablo Theatre Company's production of The Wizard of Oz, visit www.diablotheatre.org. For tickets, call the Lesher Center's box office at 925-943-7469 or visit www.lesherartscenter.org.
If you want information about Funkmode and its menu of classes for kids and adults, check out their website at www.funkmode.com
Martha Ross, the former editor of Walnut Creek Patch, now provides publicity for the Diablo Regional Arts Association and the Lesher Center for the Arts.