Thursday, March 10, 2011

Big show, little theater

M&D Productions has transformed its stage from a trailer park to a mental institution and just about everything in between. Now M&D is whisking people off to Oz in director Christy Hikel’s version of “The Wizard of Oz,” a well cast and great looking production that is undermined by certain limitations.

“The Wizard of Oz” is a show that needs little introduction. Kansas girl Dorothy (Courtney Phelps) is transported to the land of Oz by a twister and must seek the help of the wizard of Oz (Ezra Alves) to go home. She's plagued by the Wicked Witch of the West (Shelly Morin), but picks up friends to help her: Scarecrow (Eric Jordan), Tin Man (Ged Owen) and the Cowardly Lion (Heather Lizzie).

This is a big show. M&D's Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. is a small theater. While, in the past, M&D has done remarkable things with its stage, this time around it can't quite overcome the lack of space. This is not to slight the multiple and imaginatively designed sets by Deborah Jasien.

The issue is in the more elaborate, cast-heavy set pieces, such as Munchkinland or the Emerald City. The small stage feels cluttered and often requires characters walking around in circles. One way around the limited space was to personify the yellow brick road with Ellen Hill wearing a yellow shirt that says brick road on the front and follow me on the back. It is a funny gag that gets a laugh every time.

The other hurdle the cast must overcome is having to sing-a-long to a CD rather than live music. Everyone in the cast does their best to work through this restriction, but sometimes lose their way. The pre-recorded music inevitably straight-jackets any spontaneity or organic moments.

Given these setbacks, there is still much to praise. The show has fantastic costumes by Marion Owen, Peg Sutherland and Kathleen Mulkern that is complimented and equalled by Owen's makeup work. Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion in particular look terrific, and that alone goes a long way to helping the show work.

After a clunky start in Kansas, things smooth out in Oz. The production entertains thanks to actors who ideally fit their characters. Jordan continues to prove himself to be a truly gifted comic actor with seemingly boundless energy. He manages to bring his own spin to this iconic character and steals nearly every scene he is in.

Lizzie, who makes her stage debut in this show, does a damn fine impression of Bert Lahr from the beloved 1939 film. This is the right choice since so many of the Lion's lines don't sound right any other way. Like Jordan she brings tremendous energy to the role.

Owen has the least flashy role of Dorothy's compatriots and is often overshadowed by the larger-than-life performances of Jordan and Lizzie. He also seems to have a come-and-go English accent. Even so, he does bring a real sense of warmth to the Tin Man.

Phelps gets the innocence of Dorothy just about perfect and handles the show's most famous song, “Over the Rainbow” nicely. She has good chemistry with Jordan, Lizzie and Owen, and their scenes together are when the show works best.

Morin, who by day is the executive director of the Mount Washington Valley Children's Museum, clearly relishes getting to be the Wicked Witch. She's the best kind of hammy and has a fantastic evil cackle. Her death scene is priceless.

In smaller roles, Jessica Pappalardo makes a lasting impression as the impossibly sweet Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Her performance of “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are” is a highlight. The casting of Amy-Nicole Smullen as the Mayor of Munchkinland, and dressing her to look like the Queen of England is a clever twist on the original that Smullen delivers well.

Overall, it is an uneven production, but one that carries the day thanks to a game, lively cast paired with great sets, costumes and make up.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students (Kennett High School, Kennett Middle School or Fryeburg Academy) and a family four pack for $30. Call the box office at 662-7591.

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