Two themes that make "The Wizard of Oz" an enduring classic are magical transformation and the return to the safe embrace of home. Both were in evidence last week in the ambitious production of the stage musical by Eden Christian Academy.
Both themes are active in the musical itself, but this is one theater report where I don't have to summarize the plot, right? Here goes anyway: early 20th century Kansas farm girl bumps her head and is plunged into an epic fantasy in which the people and events of her own life are transformed into a tale of personal adventure and redemption in a magical land full of magical creatures, both charming and malign, ending in the rediscovery that there's no place like home.
However, the magical transformation I have in mind isn't that of the plot but of the Eden Christian Field House, an unpromising barn-like venue for musical comedy, into an arena for technical stage wizardry. As to the embracing warmth of home, Eden Christian provided that itself, involving energy, enthusiasm and a very large school family of somewhere between 100 and 150 students.
It's hard to tell just how many, because the lead roles were double- or triple-cast, with those leads then dropping back into the ensemble as Emerald City-zens, Poppikins, etc. You wouldn't have known that the leads I saw April 24 were just one combination out of three -- they attacked their roles with such glee -- or that it was opening night, because they and a large support crew got through a complex show with only a few delayed cues.
As familiar as the story of Oz is, it's always fun to be reminded of the Kansas pre-story, with its intimations of what's to come: "It's like my heart was all tore out," says the farmhand prototype of the Tin Man; "you stood there like you was stuffed," says another; there's something about a magic wand; and we all know Miss Gulch and Prof. Marvel will become the Wicked Witch and the Wizard.
Meanwhile, the real Eden Christian magicians were the designers and stage crew. They created the twister using black light, with cutouts of familiar objects flying past Dorothy and Toto. (Before I forget, a special nod to Toto, a canine stage trouper, who seemed so consistently present, at first I thought he was a puppet.) Just about every scene was a fresh set up -- poppy fields, flowery Munchkinland, the imposing gates of Oz, the Witch's castle, etc. The stagehands worked hard, whirling the house around in the twister. The downside was long setup times, but it gave you a chance to chat with your neighbor.
One of the best effects was the projection of Oz's giant face on clouds of mist. There was strobe light. And I'm sure we must thank producer/director Tina Marccaci for the abundant use of the center audience aisle, the rear of the audience and the sides, to enlarge the acting area and involve us all in Dorothy's epic journey.
Then, just as I was thinking that there hadn't been much choreography, the stage erupted into one number after another, culminating in a tap-off between the two witches.
The multiple-casting resulted in different students playing the "real" characters and their magical equivalents -- the farmhands and the Scarecrow-Tin Man-Lion trio, for example, or Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch. That's a shame, since the overlap is one of the pleasures of the show and truths it dramatizes. Kevin Compliment did get to play both the Professor and the Wiz, acquitting himself with an offhand eccentricity.
Maddie Tissue made a self-possessed, visually archetypal Dorothy. But the juicy role is the witch, and Janna Jackson really dug into it. No matter how much author Gregory Maguire rehabilitated her (as Elphaba) in "Wicked," here she remains a delicious baddie. (As Milton knew, Satan gets all the best lines.)
Jaron Snavely's robust Cowardly Lion had an entertaining size and gusto, owing something of his characterization and voice to Bert Lahr in the movie. Zach Ricci was a plaintive Tin Man and Daniel DiSpirito a cute, warm-hearted Scarecrow. The byplay among these three was often amusing.
An audience favorite was the Munchkins, played by some 40 elementary schoolchildren. By the way, why is Auntie Em the only major character who doesn't show up in Oz, transfigured? Is it something about the special role of the maternal?
That brings us to interpretation, an issue raised by the printed program, which presented (unsurprisingly) a Christian explication. Of course L. Frank Baum's tale has been claimed by other belief systems, as well, from political to psychoanalytic.
Ultimately, "Oz" appeals because it lets the imagination roam, bringing it safely home at last. That's the ultimate justification of the hard work Eden Christian put into this large and difficult show.
"The Wizard of Oz" ran April 24-27. For a complete list of high school musicals, visit www.post-gazette.com/ae/theater-dance/.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson is at 412-216-1944.