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The Wizardry of Bocock-Natale

The cast of Buffalo Public Theatre's "The Wizard of Oz."

Buffalo Public Theatre’s The Wizard of Oz

The 1939 MGM film, The Wizard of Oz, looms large in the American consciousness. So much so that many people aren’t even aware that the screen classic was based on a popular book published by L. Frank Baum in 1900, and that elements of the story were altered to facilitate the demands of a Hollywood Technicolor musical.

To launch their new theatrical endeavor, Buffalo Public Theatre, co-founders Loraine O’Donnell and Kelli Bocock-Natale have understandably gravitated not to Baum’s novel about a little girl from Kansas who is swept away to a magical land by a cyclone but to the beloved film it inspired. They have also taken a nostalgic turn toward their own theatrical pasts; many years ago they were involved in another camp December Wizard of Oz, in which O’Donnell also played the Wicked Witch of the West, in the days when the theater community used to do a holiday performance to benefit the Food Bank of WNY.

In her program note, director Bocock-Natale asserts that she has not endeavored to recreate the film on stage, and that she has, in fact, “put away any thought of the movie characters, well known laughs and memorable songs.” This, however, is gently disingenuous. The lure of the film is apparently irresistible, for Bocock-Natale’s version of The Wizard of Oz is clearly and entirely adapted from that source. The only trace of the book is occasional additions of minor text, often assigned to a narrator figure played by Dudney Jones, providing us with such expository details as the fact that from the farmhouse door Dorothy could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side, and that the Tin Man was once in love with a Munchkin.

By contrast, the film references in this production are relentless. The evening begins and ends with “Over the Rainbow” from Harold Arlen’s Oscar-winning film score. Dorothy wears not the silver shoes of the book but the ruby slippers of the film.

Glinda, played by Sára Kovácsi, does borrow language from the book, admitting that she is less powerful than the Witch of the East, and pointing to the feet of the dead woman, sticking out from “under a block of wood.” But the iconic striped socks of the witch, and the way her magic shoes miraculously appear on Dorothy’s feet, are all from the film—as is the appearance of the Wicked Witch of the West in Munchkinland. (In the book, Dorothy and her friends do not encounter the one-eyed Witch of the West and her scourge of wolves, crows, and bees, until they venture into her western territory.)

Indeed all the scenes in this stage production are exactly the same as those selected and modified for the film, as is the vast majority of the dialogue, the characters, and the well-known laughs.

The rule of thumb is that any moment of this show that you do not recall from the film, word for word and gesture for gesture, is from the book. Everything else is pure MGM.

The famous chant, “Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh my!” is from the film. Dorothy’s motivation for unwittingly melting the Wicked Witch (i.e. her effort to extinguish a fire on the scarecrow) is from the film. “Bell out of Order, Please knock” and “I had an Auntie Em myself” are from the film. The snowfall in the poppy field is from the Technicolor film—in the book, field mice rescue the travelers. “Surrender, Dorothy,” “I’ll miss you most of all,” and even the magical incantation, “There’s no place like home!” are all from the film.

The details are innumerable.

This stage production does incorporate the green-tinted glasses from the novel as means to color the Emerald City—and the audience took to this with childlike enthusiasm, each of us receiving our own cardboard and cellophane pair.

Where the production excels is in the countless ways that Bocock-Natale has cleverly and economically reinvented cinematic magic for the stage. The tumult of a cyclone. The illusion of dancing Munchkins. The manner in which she creates a field of poppies and a flurry of snow. The wizard carried away on a rolling cart, seemingly hoisted aloft by Mylar balloons. There is an endless tumble of clever and enjoyable handmade stage magic here, and in this sense, Bocock-Natale can arguably be said to have re-imagined the film.

Most delightful of all, however, are the irresistible inventions of the remarkably skilled actors.

Loraine O’Donnell provides daft playfulness to her wicked but not especially threatening witch. She endows the woman with a strong streak of absurdity, amplified by a note of competitiveness. Every evil cackle concludes with a fit of coughing, undercutting any sense that the woman presents any danger to Dorothy. The performance is pure silly joy.

Eric Rawski’s talents are used brilliantly in his portrayal of the cowardly Lion. He both channels Bert Lahr’s screen performance and updates it with a contemporary urbanity. For many, Rawski’s performance, perfectly calibrated on this occasion, will be a highlight of the evening.

Brian Riggs and Bobby Cooke are deployed with similar finesse on this occasion as the Scarecrow and Tin Man. They move beautifully and create endearing characters from familiar fodder.

Dudney Jones, Sara Kovácsi, Shantina Moore, and Alyssa Abraham successfully navigate a litany of characters, from Munchkins, to a narrator (Jones), to Glinda (Kovácsi) and the Wonderful Wizard himself (Moore). Their energetic performances effectively communicate the handmade sense of magic and invention that are the hallmark of Bocock-Natale’s work in general, and this production in particular, with impressive physicality and good humor.

For her part, Cecelia Barron makes a spirited and appealing Dorothy, and we can clearly see how the love she feels for others is returned in abundance.

Bocock-Natale has maintained the musical structure of the film by introducing contemporary popular songs in the style of a British Christmas Panto. Indeed, this production is closely aligned to that holiday tradition—part parody, part homage—and seems, in many ways, to be an Americanized version of that English genre. While this offering is less firmly grounded and polished than Bocock-Natale’s incandescent Peter Pan of three years ago, she has, artfully created a loving spoof of a family film classic, without ever veering too far from the yellow brick road of the dearly loved original. In its own way, this is a wonderful Wizard of Oz.