Caroline Siegrist in The Wizard of Oz. Photo: DDP

The Wizard of Oz

Book by L. Frank Baum
Music and Lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg
Directed by Lee Buckholz

A review by Annette Skaggs

Entire contents are copyright © 2022, Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.

There is no denying the cultural impact that L. Frank Baum’s masterpiece The Wizard of Oz has had in the world. Heck, the movie adaptation alone is still considered one of the greatest movies ever made and contains some of the most memorable songs that are still performed today. Wizard of Oz is a multi-generational work of art that shows no signs of slowing any time soon.

So with its great success and recognition why wouldn’t there be a staged version of the familiar story? While it is difficult to move the film wizardry, if you’ll excuse the pun, to a theater stage, there have been many individuals with brains, hearts, and courage to adapt certain aspects and be able to do so. And with great effect, I might add.

Derby Dinner Playhouse’s recent offering certainly rises to the expertness and entertainment that we’ve come to enjoy and expect over the years.

As the autumnal lights rise, the stage is not overly adorned save for the seat of a buggy and a raised platform that reminded me of a tree stump covered with a tarp, that could have been a little tauter as its creases and folds had me worry that a cast member may slip or trip over it. As Auntie Em (Jillian Prefach Baker) and Uncle Henry (Lem Jackson) are gathering eggs, Dorothy (Caroline Siegrist) and Toto (Zoe Love) come running onto the scene with Miss Gulch (Mandi Elkins Hutchins) hot on her tail claiming that Toto bit her and demands the sweet pet. After the dog’s surrender, Dorothy runs away. Soon the winds of a storm begin to howl and the farm hands Hunk (Matthew Brennan), Hickory (Bobby Conte), and Zeke (J.R. Stuart) start to both look for Dorothy and secure the farm from the impending twister.

After reuniting with Toto, Dorothy happens to meet Professor Marvel (Jim Hesselman), who convinced her to go back home and as she approaches the farm is caught smack dab into the brunt of the storm and hit by a falling tree limb.

It is after that hit that we, the audience, are transported to Dorothy’s fantastical dream…..the Land of Oz. 

Colorful. Whimsical. Full of Light. 

Filled with a marvelous assortment of intriguing and equally frightful characters Dorothy’s adventure through Oz is fraught with danger but yields a chance to make life-long friendships, learn lessons and gain new insights within herself.

With such a strong and memorable story as Oz, it is imperative to have a cast and crew that are able to handle the heavy lifting that this show demands. I think it safe tis o say that Derby Dinner Playhouse did quite well. 

Was everything perfect, no, but those imperfections were minute at best.

As you’d imagine this production calls for a large body of performers with many of them taking on multiple roles, such as Jillian Preface Baker taking on the roles of both Auntie Em and Glinda the Good Witch of the North, providing just the right balance of motherliness and being a guide/friend, not to mention she was in good voice, as well.

Other roles that are doubled up are those of the farm hands. Bobby Conte certainly showed some heart as the Tin Man but was a little less noticeable as farm hand Hickory. Of the hundreds of actors that I have seen grace the stages of this area, I’d be hard-pressed to think of anyone more suited to portray Zeke and the Cowardly Lion as J. R. Stuart. His delivery certainly made me feel as if I were watching the late, great Bert Lahr in the 1939 film. Down to the weird Midwest via New England patter/accent, Mr. Stuart had this role down pat.

While the roles of the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion require dancers, the Scarecrow is a whole other idea. Fortunately, Derby Dinner Playhouse was able to enlist the triple threat that is Matthew Brennan for that dexterity. As Hunk he was tender, sweet, and attentive to the Gale clan, and parlayed that same nuance to his performance as the Scarecrow. While not the best vocalist on the stage, he certainly held his own, but it was his dancing that I was most excited about. The man moved as if he had little skeleton, with carefully choreographed moves that would mimic how one would think a man of straw would dance. A round of applause to Heather Paige Folsom for her fabulous work in choreography that oft times mimicked exactly what I’ve seen on the stage and on the screen, accounting for number of actors and the limited space that is afforded to them.

Jim Hesselman’s professor was charming, but as the Wizard, I was wanting a bit more oomph. Similarly for Lem Jackson as the Emerald City Guard. I think it could have been played up even farther. Not to say it wasn’t entertaining, but I like those roles over the top.

As you’d imagine, this musical demands talented folks and many of them. The Munchkins and other assorted roles that were used to give wizardry to effects (use of whirling dervishes in gray for the storm and beautiful poppy-colored costumes and dancers with umbrellas), were expertly used and portrayed. During Dorothy’s introduction to the Munchkins and the Lollipop Guild my eye could not help but wonder to one of the actors who had the exact same look and reaction as one of the actors in the movie adaptation, and this evening’s actor was even more entertaining and really into their role. 

Rounding out the multiple roles would be Mandi Elkins Hutchins as both Miss Gulch and The Witch. There is something about the ability to unleash one’s dark side on stage that makes a person appreciate the art of acting. I dare say that Ms. Hutchins let it all out. She was the embodiment of those characters and delightfully entertaining. 

The role of Dorothy does demand quite a large amount of heavy lifting from its actor and I believe that in the time that Caroline Siegrist has been working on stages around the area and beyond, Dorothy was intuitive to her. Just about every note, dance move, arm flutter, reaction to the scene and even holding sweet Toto seemed natural and not given much second thought. 

Scott Bradley’s musical direction and Devon Rodlund’s sound design fit well within the space, save for an odd sound mix at the first song. Kevin Love’s stage management and the use of more of the whole of the theater complex (it is fun when the actors are only a couple of feet away from you) were inventive. Lee Buckholz’s direction was pointed and well thought out.Applause goes to Sharon Murray Harrah’s costuming and Alexa Holloway’s lighting design. While I was not expecting to see anything far removed from what I’d expect to see in way of costumes for The Wizard of Oz, I was impressed with how the costumes of the first scene and the lighting that was used, copied, or seemed to copy, the sepia hues that are found in the first half of the movie adaptation. That was very clever and appreciated.

Featuring Dick Baker, Jillian Prefach Baker, Hadley Bauer, Matthew Brennan, Connor Rock Brunken, Chris Bryant, Bobby Conte, Michael Evans, Lincoln Fogarty, Jim Hesselman, Mandi Elkins Hutchins, Lem Jackson, Kennedy Julian, Kyran Kennedy, Kennedy Kruse,  Asa Milliner, Michael Mossucco, Kathleen Meyer, Caroline Siegrist, Audrey Stewart, J.R. Stuart, Embry Thielmeier, Taylor Thomas, &  Zoey Love as Toto.  

The Wizard of Oz

July 6 – August 21, 2022

Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN  47129

Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.