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Friday, October 24, 2008

In the land of "Oz": Writer Seth Kubersky takes a flying leap â?¦

Posted By on Fri, Oct 24, 2008 at 5:33 PM

It's 6:30pm, and I'm standing outside the Bob Carr loading dock, nervously tapping my foot. The union stagehands sit outside the stage door, puffing on smokes; a bus-full of actors in matching T-shirts disgorges on the sidewalk; an animal trainer arrives with two adorable dogs in tow. Finally, stage manager Trinity Wheeler emerges to shake my hand and allow me entrance backstage.

It's flying time.

Of the many effects employed by the touring production of the Wizard of Oz (in Orlando through this weekend), the "aerography" used to elevate the Wicked Witch and others are among the more interesting. The aerial equipment, designed by Flying by Foy, consists of two separate systems. The heavy lifting is performed by a computer-controlled winch that levitates the Wizard's 300-pound hot-air-balloon basket up 50 feet above the stage.


The second system, which I was to be strapped into, relies solely on manpower: two stagehands pull on a large rope to provide vertical lift, while a third controls horizontal travel with a tug on a line. Technical director T.J. King and his head carpenter Ryan McAlpine assured me of their exacting safety procedures (they hold a 15-minute "flight call" rehearsal before every performance) while handing me a harness resembling a bondage device for infantilists.

Over the years I've done my share or rock climbing and rapeling, so the equipment's super-snug grip on my nether-regions came as no surprise. I'm just grateful everyone backstage was polite enough to turn away as I made the necessary adjustments.

Safely ensnared, I was ready for Ryan to attach the pair of thin cables dangling from the rafters to the attachment points on each hip-bone, demonstrating that the quick-release clips would only detach with my feet on firm ground. Then a quick safety check, a tug on the rope, and suddenly I found myself floating 20 feet above the stage.

My first impression (once I recovered from the sharp pain introduced to my pelvis) was of awe at the remarkable perspective I had, gazing out over the sea of empty theater seats. As I slowly traversed the width of the proscenium, I tried to strike a suitably Superman-esque pose, but probably looked more like Peter Pan. Before I knew it, it was all over.

Many thanks to Ryan, and local union techs Wren and Vince, for setting me back down without snapping an ankle. Despite the discomfort (actors in the show have custom-fit harnesses that are reportedly much less painful) it was an exhilarating experience. Many thanks to Amanda Norvell from True Marketing and the fine folks from Oz for the opportunity.

As for the show itself, if you love the original 1939 movie musical, you'll probably like this mostly faithful stage adaptation. The script, written by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company, succeeds best when it sticks close to the original screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf (curiously uncredited). Additional materials deleted from the film (the opening verse of "Over the Rainbow," extended versions of "If I Only Had a Brain/Heart," the infamous "Jitterbug" dance sequence) are reincorporated to good effect. Other elaborations including heavy-handed expositions and avuncular anachronisms, are less effective; "clever" quips undermine Pat Sibley's Hamiltonian menace as the Wicked Witch.

The cast is consistently competent: Cassie Okenka makes an appropriately innocent (if overly breathless) Dorothy; and the trio of Scarecrow (Noah Aberlin), Tinman (Chris Kind) and Lion (Bruce Warren) have great comic timing, with Warren's cowardly Brooklyn queen being a clear audience favorite.

Sets feel a bit skimpy and inconsistently stylized (Munchkinland resembles a cardboard cutout of Mickey's Toontown) but Bob Bonniol's lighting and video projections take up some of the slack. The biggest problem is director Nigel West's failure to properly pace the show. Some moments, like the initial cyclone, go on endlessly; other dramatic developments, including the melting of the Witch, are rushed through, destroying their emotional impact.

Perhaps the best thing about this Wizard is that it's made me want to sit down and rewatch the original film. As I kid I anxiously awaited its annual television airing, the only night of the year I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime. Now I have it on deluxe collector's edition DVD, and I haven't viewed it in years.

â?? Seth Kubersky

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