It was Oz-some! 

By on December 13, 2017

EPAC infuses ‘Wizard of Oz’ with humor

Over my many years of discussing, watching, learning and writing about film, I have held steadfast to my conviction that the greatest movie ever made is Victor Fleming’s 1939 “The Wizard of Oz.” And I always follow up and justify this statement by admitting “The Wizard of Oz” might not be your favorite movie — it isn’t even mine — but the movie’s sheer ability to withstand the test of time in such a glorious manner, attracting fanatical admirers of all ages, proves its merit as “the greatest.”

I’m not the only one with this opinion; “The Wizard of Oz” takes the top spot on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of Top 100 Movies of All Time with an aggregate score rating of 99 percent based on reviews as of Dec. 5, 2017.

I mention all of this as EPAC debuted its theatrical version of the well-known tale of Dorothy and her adventure to the land of Oz Thursday, Dec. 7 to a packed house and a standing ovation at the Sharadin Bigler Theatre. It needs to be said here that before there was a movie, there was a musical.

Before there was a musical, there was a book. First edition copies of Frank L. Baum’s 206-page “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” command anywhere from $45,000 to $100,000 on the collector’s market. So powerful is the tome the Library of Congress has dedicated a page to the circa-1900 book* calling it “America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale.”

Principal characters in EPAC’s “The Wizard of Oz” include (left to right) Tin Man, Zander Gawn; Dorothy, Josey Terry; Lion, Bob Checchia; and Scarecrow, Rick Kopecky. (Submitted photo)

The national collector of reference did not stop there and inducted the film version in its National Film Registry in 1989. Internationally, “The Wizard of Oz” is listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, preserving the film for eternity against “collective amnesia, neglect, the ravages of time and climatic conditions, and willful and deliberate destruction.” The combined work in all its presentations is one of only five franchises** to secure EGOT status, having won all four major entertainment awards: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony.

EPAC had some big shoes, or ruby slippers, to fill.

Filling those slippers wonderfully is high school senior and EPAC prodigy Josey Terry, who opens the show in “black and white” as Dorothy. (The show opens in tones of gray and Dorothy dons a black and white checkered dress only to switch to EPAC’s version of Technicolor when she travels to Munchkinland.)

Our heroine is devastated when the corrupt and vile Miss Almira Gulch demands Dorothy turn over her beloved Toto (played by Bella, an eight-year old Yorkie Poo). There’s nothing Dorothy, her Aunt Em (Bryna Freeman in her EPAC debut), or Uncle Henry (Bruce Weaver) can do to “go against the law.” Despondent, Dorothy runs away, ultimately returning home only to be engulfed by a horrific Kansas storm.

Cellar doors go flying, houses spin, and even a cow gets caught up in a twister as imagined by the creative force of director Irving Gonzalez. For this show, EPAC Artistic Director Edward Fernandez tapped the creative talents of Gonzalez, who also heads the theatre’s children’s programs and is the theater director at Ephrata High School. After the storm, Dorothy and her farmhouse come to rest in Munchkinland (atop the Wicked Witch of the East) in the land of Oz. Enter the munchkins, a 20-plus ensemble of children who pull off a miraculously entertaining, without being sickeningly oversweet, fantasyland, and shows Dorothy she is no longer in Kansas.

Gonzalez’s experience and talent for working with children makes the Munchkinland scene seamless. EPAC’s telling of the classic tale holds a bit more humor than most. It’s a welcome addition to a story many may know too well. Do not expect a run-of-the-mill Oz. Theatregoers are introduced to this spirited delivery when the Wicked Witch of the West (Liz Checchia) asks, “how can anyone be so clumsy?” by dropping their house on someone.

In Oz, Glinda the good witch (Kayla Klase) suggests Dorothy seek the help of the mighty Wizard (EPAC veteran John Kleimo) in order to return to Kansas, because “there’s no place like home.” On her travels to see the wizard in the Emerald City, Dorothy gains the camaraderie of the Scarecrow (Rick Kopecky), the Tin Man (Zander Gawn), and the Cowardly Lion (Bob Checchia).

The Cowardly Lion is always the character to steal the show in any “Wizard of Oz,” and Checchia does the role justice. He is hilarious, timid, and fierce. And he plays on the crowd’s adoration. On opening night (and again on Saturday) ovations for the Lion where only bested by the Wicked Witch (and, of course, Dorothy).

Bobby Checchia plays a monkey during the “Wizard of Oz” at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center. (Checchia photos by Suzette Wenger)

Liz Checchia (yes, there is a relation; she is Bob’s daughter-in-law) portrays a Wicked Witch who is both maniacally devious and profoundly silly. When her jokes hit, the audience is often shocked by their own laughter, not being prepared to accept comedic relief from such a vile character. Her drone-like Winkies and henchmen of flying monkeys, led by Nikko (Liz’s husband and Bob’s son, Bobby Checchia), ultimately capture Dorothy and imprison her in the witch’s castle.

Terry is a brilliant Dorothy. She pleased fans of the movie by channeling her inner Judy Garland, but knew enough to not overact the role. She can convey robust emotion with just the slightest of facial expressions; her voice, powerful and sweet, drives the heart wrenching emotion of a little girl lost. Obviously comfortable in this house, Terry is no stranger to the EPAC stage; the Hummelstown native last wowed audiences as the lead in EPAC’s version of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr.”

There is more comedy than fear in this Oz. Weaver’s talent shines through his perfect comedic timing, something most of the cast pulls off with perfection. He is a benevolent but stern Uncle Henry and a hilariously punctual Gatekeeper at the Emerald City. Weaver drives the musical number “The Merry Old Land of Oz.”

The show is bursting with strong vocals, most notably the harmony created by the ensemble in scenes like “Poppies” and solid dance routines like “Jitterbug,” choreographed by Gonzalez and Kristin Pontz. However, the most stunning and superb aspect of the show are the costumes. From the color change in Dorothy’s dress to the details of the Winkie uniforms, Costume Designer Kate Willman’s skill shines throughout the show. Ozians are a hip and brilliant green. The Jitterbugs are creepy and downright disturbing, especially if you get an aisle seat. Along the way Willman did get a helping hand from theatre volunteers, especially by parent Clint Burdick who donated his skills in cosplay outfit-making to create the Tin Man.

Elizabeth Checchia plays the Wicked Witch.

Thursday’s performance had its small share of opening night jitters: a nervous actor missing a bit of a line, a small glitch in sound, and an overzealous smoke machine, but mostly the show went off without a hitch. If “The Wizard of Oz” is the greatest piece of theatrical art to grace humanity (as I would argue), EPAC provides proof to the argument by creating a captivating and awe-inspiring show.

I couldn’t help but let my eyes wander to the theatre patrons around me as their mouths gaped in amazement and surprise. The tale is timeless and Gonzalez both captures its endurance and its magic by having fun with a tale well-told and paying homage to the productions before his. Fun for the whole family, “The Wizard of Oz” is another notch in the list of successes for the Ephrata players.

Tickets to EPAC’s “The Wizard of Oz” can be purchased at ephrataperformingartscenter.com.

* An online copy of the first edition from the Library of Congress can be perused at loc.gov/item/03032405/.

** The other four EGOT franchises are “The Sound of Music,” “The Lion King,” “Aladdin,” and “Sweeney Todd,” all of which have graced the Sharadin Bigler Theatre since 2006.

Note: In full disclosure, Michael C. Upton will be standing in as a spotlight operator for this production after opening night. His son, Teagan Upton, is a Munchkin.

Emily Checchia, 2, and older brother Hayden Checchia, 4, play two of the munchkins during the “Wizard of Oz” at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center.

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