L. Frank Baum Flies Over the Rainbow in S.F. Masterpiece
by Nicholas Leither
As a child, I watched it on broadcast television every single year. As a teenager, I watched it with Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” cued just so to the opening credits. As an adult, I use it as a metaphor monthly, because—you know—self-styled “wizards” hiding behind curtains.
So, when you’re going to a show based on a story that has made a 40-year impression, it’s easy to expect to be underwhelmed or, even worse, disappointed. Add in the fact that I brought my two kids, ages 5 and 7, to this play, intent on their experiencing that same narrative magic. The task seems monumental.
In the program, you get a yellow napkin that says, “I’m not a napkin. I’m a yellow brick. You’ll need me later.” Later, we find ourselves waving these napkins in the air with the rest of the audience, laughing at the Lion, booing at the Wicked Witch, wisecracking at the Wizard, and singing along as we all follow along the Yellow Brick Road.
The show manages to be so many things at once. A spectacle to behold, but also an interactive experience. Irreverent, but emotionally moving. Shocking and outrageous, but wholesome and touching, too, reminding the children that those dreams you dare to dream can come true.
Director Sam Pinkleton, if ever a Wiz there was, has created and curated a spectacularly fun, new version of “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s a show that I overheard one audience member call, “So San Francisco.” And, yes, it has the hallmarks, with its diverse casting, characters in drag, loud colors, big personalities, and Pride, Pride, Pride. But it’s also not done for the sake of it, or to solely make a political statement (though it does that too).
Pinkleton and the cast have embraced the core inclusive message of “The Wizard of Oz,” where trouble melts like lemon drops and you are accepted, embraced, and supported whether you are flesh, tin, straw, fur, small, large, power hungry, bedazzled—all except wicked.
However, staying true to the core message does not come at the cost of giving up fresh new imagination. ACT’s “Wizard” is punctuated by the music, ringing with nostalgia in those old classics, but pounding with new energy.
And, yes, the singing is great, the acting electric across the cast—a professional and delightful show all around. But it isn’t that, exactly, that makes this show sensational. It’s something else. It’s that new, contemporary shine that Pinkleton has polished up from this old tale, making it, once again, poignantly relevant in the Now.
So, it both saddened me and delighted me when my daughter, Itasca, told me after the show, “It was much better than the movie!”
“The Wizard of Oz”—book by L. Frank Baum, adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company, music by Harold Arlen & E.Y. Harburg, directed and choreographed by Sam Pinkleton, by American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco. Info: ACT-SF.org – to June 25, 2023.
Cast: El Beh (Uncle Henry), Darryl V. Jones (Tin Man), Katrina Lauren Mcgraw (Glinda/Aunt Em), Ezra Reaves (Ensemble, Violin), Cathleen Riddley (Lion/Zeke), Travis Santell Rowland (Barrister, Nikko), Danny Scheie (Scarecrow/Hunk), Chanel Tilghman (Dorothy Gale), Courtney Walsh (Wicked Witch of the West/Miss Gulch), Ada Westfall (Professor Marvel), and Beth Wilmurt (Mayor of Munchkinland, Winkie).
Banner photo: Katrina Lauren McGraw (Glinda). Photos: Kevin Berne