September 12, 2006 > Rainbow magic
by Steve Warga
A cast of thousands stormed Newark Memorial High School's stage Friday night for the premier of Stage 1 Community Theatre's marvelous production of The Wizard of Oz. Okay, okay, it only seemed like thousands! Actually, it was a cast of dozens, many playing multiple roles in this wonderfully entertaining rendition of L. Frank Baum's classic fantasy. The dedication, hard work and talents of so many cast members combined to leave an impression of a much larger, Broadway-like ensemble than one might expect from a community theater.
When the muted opening gave way to "Over the Rainbow," by Erin Reis as Dorothy, the audience quickly realized they were in for a treat. Even in the unlikely event that all else went bad, Reis can sing! Strains of Judy Garland teased the ear again and again as Reis masterfully displayed her vocal range and depth in the familiar and ever-pleasing notes. The newly minted Newark High grad moved with grace and confidence on a familiar stage in her first shot at the role of her childhood dreams.
If Reis has any weakness, it would be in her still-developing acting skills. Were it not for some very able acting by the other familiar characters, Reis' slightly limited emoting would draw no notice. Clearly dedicated to her craft, Reis no doubt will learn much from fellow-actors like Mary Gimeno who simply stole the spotlight with every appearance, first as the shrewish Mrs. Gulch, come to snag Toto; and then as the Wicked Witch in the Land of Oz. From her wobbly bicycle riding, permanent scowl in place, to the evil leering and cackle of the green-faced witch, Gimeno's performance was virtuoso throughout.
Not even Gimeno's bright light, however, could pale the colors of the other actors. Where to begin? Among the best were Kathy Hileman as Aunt Em and then, Glinda the good witch; Kevin Hammond as Hickory and Tinman; Ricky Webster, Hunk and Scarecrow; Robert Sholty as Zeke and the Lion; one and all executed their roles exuberantly and well. Hammond, the play's choreographer, even incorporated a credible tap dance into his "If I Only Had A Heart" number. Sholty displayed fine range in acting and singing, his strong bass commanding and enthralling the audience over and over again. Webster supplemented his impressive repertoire of acting skills with an equally impressive display of floppy, "Scarecrow" pratfalls and some pretty decent singing too.
For all of that, though, the Munchkin kids may have snuck in and stolen audience hearts. Lavishly costumed, thoroughly practiced and bursting with energy, the child actors were a pure and pleasing delight to all. How could they miss? Kids doing what kids do best-having fun--with fawning adults ready to be pleased! What powerful magic!
Attendees are in for another treat, too, from Director Sue Ellen Nelson; Music Director Ross Gershenson and Choreographer Hammond. They elected to include a scene not familiar to lovers of the classic film, starring Judy Garland. During the "Haunted Forest," Act II, scene 6, a curious creature appears, gliding, nymph-like through the trees. She's dressed in a bright red jacket, black tights and a red derby hat with two, odd antennas wobbling above. It's only when the orchestra strikes the opening chords of "Jitterbug" that we know what's going on. Lead Jitterbug and production Dance Captain, Whitney Larson seizes the moment to enthrall viewers with a powerful, graceful and alluring performance in this rousing ensemble dance number. Colorful, imaginative and rhythmic, it might well be the highlight of the production. And to think, they left this scene on the cutting room floor in 1939!
Space limitations prevent a full listing of credits and highlights. Suffice it to say, Highly Recommended. As TCV movie reviewer, Jeremy Inman, likes to say, "I'd pay my own money to see this one!"
Wizard of Oz
Stage 1 Community Theatre
Newark Memorial High School
39375 Cedar Blvd., Newark
Fridays, Sept. 15 and 22, 8 p.m.
Saturdays, Sept. 16 and 23, 8 p.m.
Sundays, Sept. 17
Advance purchase and Senior: $18
High school (with ID) and younger: $10
General Admission: $20
For tickets, call (510) 791-0287; online: www.stage1theatre.org; or at The Book End (Thornton Ave. and Cedar Blvd., Newark)