By Ladd Wendelin
Like a force of nature, no other theater space in Lincoln has the potential to literally transport audiences to another time and place like Pinewood Bowl (west on Van Dorn St.), which is nestled amidst the natural beauty of the surrounding pines and countryside. The eager masses packed the seating area Saturday night, despite quarter-sized mosquitos and oppressive heat, to see a full-fledged spectacle in one of Lincoln’s most revered and scenic parks. I couldn't help thinking that, somewhere over the rainbow, The Wizard of Oz, which runs through July 17, was being performed in an air-conditioned theatre, but an outdoor summer performance brings with it a certain magic.
Even with the less than ideal weather, director / choreographer Courtney Piccoli, who helmed last year’s festive hit White Christmas, has mounted yet another ambitious and crowd-pleasing production. With at least 100+ cast and crew members and numerous special effects, it takes more than a little brains, heart, and courage to meet the colossal and sometimes unyielding demands of the Bowl. In most areas, Piccoli and company meet the significant challenges set before them.
Piccoli’s choreography took centerstage. The razzle/dazzle of large group numbers (“Munchkinland“, “Merry Old Land of Oz”) eventually gave way to somewhat less dynamic numbers, such as the cluttered “Jitterbug”. Karen Jordan-Anderson's costuming was impressive, considering how many actors there are to costume in the show. Robert Wamsley doubles-up as both actor and scenic/set design, along with construction by Richard Imig. Compared to White Christmas, the majority of the set pieces have been scaled down for quick transitions between scenes.
Dorothy’s faithful travel companions, the Scarecrow (Michael J. Corner), Tin Man (Wamsley), and Lion (David Claus) don’t stray too far from the classic portrayals seen in the 1939 MGM film. In fact, none of the principal actors seemed to eclipse the accepted depictions of these beloved and cherished characters. Since these characters are already instantly recognizable, I was a little surprised that the cast did not explore more empathetic interpretations to show what happens in between points A and B. Oz, afterall, is a coming-of-age story; a young girl’s journey from youthful petulance to an appreciation of the comforts of home she took for granted. Ultimately, Dorothy's road trip transcends physical distances, instead becoming an emotional and transformative trek across the marvelous land of Oz.
Claus, with his resonant baritone, embraces the opportunity to offer a fresh and new interpretation of the role that is almost cut to fit his talents. Next to Toto, he was a clear audience favorite. With a slightly less-than-wicked Witch (Eisler) and wonderful-ish Wizard (Jeff Bargar), much like the great Kansas prairie itself, Piccoli’s Dorothy arrives back home relatively unchanged, same as she ever was.
Make no mistake, Piccoli is one of the few directors in Lincoln who understands the dimensions of the Pinewood Bowl. No matter who is telling the story, Pinewood's Wizard of Oz retains enough ruby-red power to marvel, mystify, and enchant audiences young and old alike, which in its best moments, it does - another fine example of the myriad of talents and hard work that it takes to put on an annual outdoor spectacular.
The Wizard of Oz runs July 10 and July 14-17. Gates open at 6 P.M. with the performances starting at 8:00 P.M. Tickets for adults are $12 at the gate, $11 at Russ’ Market locations, and $10 with a Russ’ card. Children’s tickets are $5 for ages 6-12, while those 5 and under are free. Seating is general admission. Park benches are provided, but you’re welcome to bring your own lawn chairs or blankets, bug spray and sunblock.
For more info, visit www.pinewoodbowl.org.