Producing a play about a literary tale that has been popularized in film always presents a special challenge. Such is the case with Lexington Children's Theatre's latest production, Oz.
Director Larry Snipes is a veteran of the stage-versus-film obstacle. His 2009 production of The Little Mermaid, a stripped-down but elegantly potent retelling of the Hans Christen Andersen fable that became a Disney film, remains one of my favorite productions of all time.
Where films often add visual glitz and make radical changes to the story line, the staged versions LCT produces often expose young audiences to the author's original intention.
In the case of Oz, playwright Patrick Shanahan takes it one step further. His script not only takes the audience back to the original version of L. Frank Baum's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, complete with silver shoes instead of the film version's ruby slippers, but directly into the author's world: The entire play is set in one room of Baum's 1899 Chicago home.
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Imaginatively staged and performed, Oz achieves more than storytelling but shows the audience how to find inspiration in our everyday surroundings.
Muddled deep in an unfinished draft of the classic tale, Baum (Kyle Chesney) gets a surprise jolt of inspiration when he meets Dot (Carly Crawford), a troubled girl who is unhappy with her home life.
Baum invites her to listen to the children's story he is writing and begins to frantically improvise a live performance of his tale, grabbing ordinary household objects like curtains or a hat stand and turning them into costumes, props and entire characters on the fly.
Dot jumps in to play Dorothy, and the two begin a back-and-forth collaboration of make-believe, adding significant twists and turns to Baum's draft. Even Baum's maid, Bridgey (Kat Myers), gets into the action, and the trio's playacting helps Baum finish the book.
Shanahan's premise is innovative in that it tries to tell the story behind the story while still telling the story. Sound confusing?
Somehow, onstage, it is not, in part because of Snipes' direction. The transformation of nearly every item in Baum's study as a costume or prop requires carefully intricate blocking. The cast makes this complex choreography look easy.
What's more, the show is accent-heavy. For instance, Chesney gives the Tin Man a rough, Scottish brogue. Myer's turn as a heavily Irish-accented maid is spot-on. Playing multiple characters is common, even expected, at LCT, but the sharp, energetic cast relies on voice more than costume, which added imaginative color to the language of the play when I saw its opening performance Sunday.
The play's best moments are when the "real" characters, Baum and Dot as themselves, are driven to their own "aha" moments as a result of their play. When Dot is upset by Baum's original ending — or lack of one — the writer realizes he has been just another adult who lets Dot down. So he finds a way to end the story in a way that teaches Dot an important lesson as well.