When Diablo Theatre Company lines up thirty-some kids, teaches them funky, rat-a-tat moves and sets them loose as Munchkins, Walnut Creek’s Lesher stage shines brighter than the Emerald City.
Taking a cue from the street by collaborating with FUNKMODE, a Pleasant Hill hip-hop centered company with a large nternet following, DTC pushes The Wizard of Oz into the present day. Witches fly, the Scarecrow bugaloos, the Tinman pops, and even Dorothy grooves beyond the skippity-hop made musical theater cliché by the 1939 film version of L. Frank Baum’s novel.
Artistic Director Daren A. C. Carollo demonstrates plenty of love for the classic tale of girl meets twister, makes friends, fights evil and discovers “there’s no place like home.” Audiences need not fear: The flying monkeys appear, the lion grasps his tail like a child with a well-worn security blanket, and the Wizard fools no one, but miraculously speaks words of wisdom in the final moments.
Live music is a welcome feature in DTC productions and the energy from the pit was best matched during ensemble scenes. Musical Director Cheryl Yee Glass bumps the tempos: creating a sense of urgency and supporting the vocal strengths of the leading cast members.
Olivia Hytha (Dorothy) delivers Over the Rainbow in crystalline tones and simple postures. Her counterparts, Jack Sale (Scarecrow), Josh Milbourne (Tinman), and Danny Cozart (Cowardly Lion), are polished and capable. But the magic, the spark that turns this odd quartet into a tight, heady package of independence and longing, is somehow missing. The actors speak, appearing not to listen to the response, and often stand stiffly separated at moments of fear or elation. The result is a controlled professionalism that could use a human touch, even a bit of messiness, to capture more emotional depth.
Witches in musicals are frequently one dimensional, making it easy to charm or repel the audience. Michelle Johnson (Glinda, the Good Witch of the North) is pink and perfect as she flies in and out on an enormous hoop. Suzie Shepard (Wicked Witch of the West) provides most of the evening’s humor and a spectacular flying scene.
The strongest aspect of the production, other than the already mentioned ensemble of Munchkins and swirly headed monkeys who squat impressively when not flying, is the scenery, especially the witches’ dungeon. A cantilevered stage, cartoon-styled arches and prominently placed high-back chair, lit with finesse by Designer Michael Palumbo, are standouts. Costumes by Marianna Ford add organization for the zany choreography, or laughs, as when Jeff Seaberg (The Wizard of Oz) reveals his stay-at-home garb.
DTC and FUNKMODE took what could be a gimmick and steered it in a viable direction. It would have been forgivable to rely on cute kids doing cute moves in the ensemble numbers, but instead the choreography is filled with physical surprises, clever use of space and a few splashy partnering moves. A solo for the Tinman is the best example of how hip hop and musical theater can become one and the same.
Without pressing the point too far, there are two reasons to go see DTC’s Oz: It’s an iconic musical no one should miss, and DTC’s forward-thinking collaboration with FUNKMODE shows the audience a (yellow brick) road to its future.