SOUTH SALT LAKE — The Utah Children’s Theatre is truly a child’s paradise. The marquee and lobby are whimsical throwbacks to theaters of yesteryear with no expense spared. And the thrust style seating means that most of the audience can be within 3 rows of the stage, which is sure to keep the little ones interested in the action. The entire theater is built with children in mind, and is a must for any family.
Their production of The Wizard of Oz, directed by Joanne M. Parker, stays closer to the text of L. Frank Baum‘s 1900 book than the 1939 film, but there are still plenty of characters and scenes familiar to those who know only the movie.
The plot still revolves around Kansas orphan Dorothy traveling to Oz and meeting the Scarecrow (Sean Marchant), Tinman (Tennessee Tarrant), Lion (Christopher Taylor), huckster wizard (Steve Harmon), and a cavalcade of Munchkins. There may be more witches than you remember—4 to be exact—with the wickedest of all played with cackling abandon by Meighan Smith.
Oz productions can rise and fall on their Dorothys, and The Utah Children’s Theatre found a good one. Young actress Maggie Lea displays a great variety of emotions with aplomb: spunk and determination in her quest for home, wide-eyed wonder at the land of Oz, and righteous indignation at the Wicked Witch, who holds several local populations in slavery. Lea is a skilled, likeable actress who hit all her marks perfectly. Plus, she’s got a real dog! What more could you want?
My other favorite character was Boq (dryly billed as “the rich Munchkin”) played energetically by Themi Kambouris, a young actor whose ability to deliver lines under a thick false beard was as impressive as his dancing. I also loved how the entire army of peaceful Oz was played by a single Victorian era crackpot (Nathan Unck) with a rusted rifle filled with flowers.
Unlike some community productions where young background characters are as likely to be chasing butterflies as acting, the actors at The Utah Children’s Theatre are solid all the way back. The location’s theater camps and classes seem to be paying off, as every child deserved a round of applause for solid acting. (Plus, who better to play a Munchkin or monkey than a kid?)
For the most part, this adaptation was light, cartoony fare. The main actors performed in the loud, high-energy style common in children’s productions. As an adult, I longed for more variety in the deliveries, and thought it could make some of the punch lines, dialogue, and personalities stand out. But the children in the audience seemed very engaged and applauded the actors at the end of each scene. Some even mimicked their favorite parts on the sidewalk outside.
Remember that slavery thing I mentioned, though? It’s kind of a big deal in this adaptation. In fact, among the fanciful costumes and frequent pratfalls that delight the kids, there is some seriously scary stuff: a dramatic cyclone sequence, a creepy stalking tree, and witches who dole out forced labor, imprisonment, and verbal abuse. Babies aren’t allowed in the theater, and the show is recommended for ages 4+, but sensitive older children may get scared at points as well.
Props by Larissa Anderson were minimal, and the set design by James B. Parker was done mostly with projection. This made the frequent scene transitions seamless, and enabled some nifty animated effects like falling snow and a flying hot-air balloon. The minimalist design had its downsides, though: the grey stage and stairs in Kansas remained grey in Oz—perhaps that glorious Technicolor film transition is just too iconic to not expect it—and it felt a little odd to go the entire show without seeing a yellow brick road. The character of the Wizard was portrayed as a lifeless floating head projected on the wall, which made the lengthy conversations between characters and the chameleonic Oz a little flat as well. (“This is weird,” a grade-schooler in the audience commented.)
On another technical note, costumes (by Christina Wilson, Cathy Maurer and Emily Trulson Parker) were on-point, with a special shout-out for Lion’s fun, bright plush costume and its beautiful thick mane.
On the whole, The Utah Children’s Theatre’s production of The Wizard of Oz is buoyed by strong young actors in an unforgettable theater setting. If you haven’t caught a show there with your kids, it’s worth your time to check out their 2017 schedule and plan a visit.