Once upon a time, a little over a year ago, an independent theatre company by the name of Haberdasher put on a production of The Wizard of Oz that captured the spirit of the original story while sneaking in plenty of humor for the adults in the audience.
After a successful run, the team at Haberdasher decided to remount their production of Oz with an updated script by Hollie Klem and Jeannette Jaquish, a different cast, and a new vision for the story.
The result is in the form of The Wonderful Remix of Oz, a production that is less reminiscent of the classic film and closer to the tone of L. Frank Baum’s original novel, where oddity reigns and even friendly faces and good guys come with haunted, sometimes tragic backstories.
The Wonderful Remix of Oz shows the journey of Dorothy Gale (Jen Michaels) as she is swept away from her home state of Kansas and dropped onto the Wicked Witch of the East Side. She is guided by Glinda the Good Witch (Amy Lee Sanchez, in a bright pink dress with an elaborate design that would make Lady Gaga envious) to seek the Wizard of Oz, who will help her go home. As Dorothy travels through the land of Oz, she’s threatened by the cackling, evil presence of the Wicked Witch of the West Side (Pamela Karp, in a performance that she’s clearly relishing every minute of). Her only hope is to rely on the friendships she develops along the way, with the Scarecrow (Jeff Foley), Tin Man (Alex Calheo), and Cowardly Lion (Lindsay Arber), all of whom yearn for something missing in their lives.
But these aren’t the same Scarecrow, Tin Man, or Lion who inhabit the film version of The Wizard of Oz, or even Haberdasher’s original production of the show. All three characters are haunted, even damaged by the Wicked Witch’s evil spells. The Scarecrow’s desire for a brain is now an artist’s yearning for inspiration. The Tin Man’s need for a heart comes from a broken man still aching for his lost love, and the Lion’s cowardice is based in a fear of judgment of rejection. Their childlike quirks now represent something deeper and universal about the human experience, and they’re portrayed in beautiful, wordless dance sequences (choreographed by Joseph Harris) that give us a glimpse into these characters’ minds.
The production values of this version of Oz, in addition to the updated script and strong performances, add to the more adult feel of the show. The bright colors of the set pieces combined with the eerie lighting made me feel like I was watching a live version of a Tim Burton movie back when he was still at his a-game. The costume design by Katie Grammes is some of the most impressive I’ve ever seen onstage; much like Rumplestiltskin spins gold out of straw, Grammes creates mobile works of art with a bizarre assortment of materials, making a dress out of garbage bags (among other things) seem threatening and glamorous at the same time.
Like Haberdasher’s first version of Oz, the remix includes some suggestive humor and absurd silliness, especially in the form of Taylor Zito’s materialistic, put-upon Gatekeeper and Matt Giroveanu’s petulant, tantrum-throwing Wizard. There are plenty of laughs to be had when Glinda enters to rock music, the Wizard fumbles with his technical equipment, or the Flying Monkeys (Zito, Chenana Manno, and Jacob Corbett) plan a night out at the club. In that respect, the remix isn’t too different from the original version.
But the emotional stakes are higher in this production. We no longer root for the Scarecrow to get his brain, the Tin Man to find a heart, the Lion to discover courage, and for Dorothy to find her way home just because that’s the story we know and it makes for a cute ending. We root for them because their search for meaning represents our own. We root for them because we want to be inspired, to be loved, and to be brave.
And when our heroes discover that they’ve always had the qualities they’ve been searching for all along, it feels like a triumph over the very real – and very human – tendency to underestimate ourselves.
Haberdasher Theatre’s “The Wonderful Remix of Oz” is running from August 15-August 31 at the 13th St Repertory Theatre at 7 PM. The theatre is located between 5th and 6th Avenues. Full disclosure: I have friends who work for Haberdasher.