At the tip top of the Golden Triangle sits a retro, viridescent marquee for Denton’s Campus Theatre, which hasn’t changed much since it was established in 1949. Elsewhere a decade earlier, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. titillated the public with Judy Garland tapping her ruby red heels in Technicolor. Since then, American culture has scarfed down a plate of Oz-inspired references, and we continue to see local theater troupes making rather traditional attempts at the film-to-stage adaptation. Last week, I visited Campus Theater to catch the end of Denton Community Theater’s run of The Wizard of Oz, where the perky rapport among actors onstage reeled in grins and giggles from audience members of all ages.
Deep in the heart of America, somewhere between rows of sunflowers and corn stalks, hard times have fallen on the Gale Farm, where orphan Dorothy Gale (Claire Marie Crenshaw) lives with her hardscrabble Aunt Em (Jeannene Abney) and her feisty Uncle Henry (Randal McCasland). When the town tyrant Miss Almira Gulch (Karen Gossett) threatens to incinerate Dorothy’s canine sidekick Toto (Zoe Michelle Kerley), the latter pleads with family and friends to stand up to this cantankerous antagonist. Alas, somewhere in the thick of Dorothy’s fits, a tornado knocks her, Toto, and her house in Munchkinland, where she is redirected to the Emerald City to seek help from the wonderful Wizard of Oz, but the Wicked Witch of the West (Gossett) makes this shero’s journey an especially arduous stroll down the yellow brick road. Accompanied by an affable assortment of non-human companions — Cowardly Lion (Jaime Rodriguez-Schmidt), Tinman (Mario Alberto), and Scarecrow (Noah J. Waddell) — our gingham-draped songbird harmonizes her way to her land of promise, only to find she’s in for one last surprising setback.
More than apparent to any theatergoer was the genial spark of camaraderie onstage as Crenshaw, Rodriguez-Schmidt, Alberto, and Waddell talked and blocked, joked and poked fun at other characters in heartwarming unison. The typecasting of Crenshaw was idyllic and well-suited to the role of Dorothy. Crenshaw embodied the character’s emotional immaturity with great grace in every flick of her frightened little wrists. Even from the back of this medium-sized auditorium, the twinkle in Crenshaw’s eye rivaled the sparkle of her slippers, and her wide vocal range inspired musical collaborations from all over the audience. Our ingénue was in equally melodious company with the pipes of Rodriguez-Schmidt and the comedic timing of Waddell. Two more pillars of solid character consistency and authenticity were Abney and Gossett, whose sharp demeanors were splendidly offset by the giggles and bounciness of a munchkin ensemble that remained evergreen with charm.
Full of life, and therefore surprise, was the appearance of an unstuffed Toto. This tiniest thespian onstage may or may not have been replaced by a stuffed understudy in later scenes when low on barkologue, but when present, her calm demeanor kept the audience impressed, especially since considering how long she was hanging on the hip of our singing and dancing leading lady for several scenes.
Bigger than a black box but smaller than Bass Performance Hall, the campus stage boasted a thick border of golden bricks trimming every edge. Platforms at centerstage right and left helped the viewer imagine several set pieces as shelters to be entered and exited by cast members. Upstage center was a large projection screen displaying still images and videos of green prairies on the verge of poverty or the CinemaScope-enhanced projections of an otherworldly Oz. This last design choice felt ungainly when trying to pay attention to the actors and not the appearance of an MP4 playhead, for one, but the children in attendance appreciated the intention behind this visual accoutrement. A few micing mishaps were noticeable but not enough to detract from the most indulgent orchestral performance, directed by Jett Cheek.
DTC’s The Wizard of Oz was the iced tea in our glass after another long and lingering season of hot (and some not-so-hot) summer musicals. Dripping with nostalgia and sweetened with impeccable actor chemistry, this production sweat with the kind of theatrical excellence that keeps North Texas theater guilds on par with larger and better-funded theater communities.
Of course, we can expect the fall 2018 season to escort in shows of a different, chilling tone. That is, as the days get shorter, we can count on the performances getting darker. Coming up next from this company in particular is the sultry scandal of The Graduate (September 14 through 23) followed by Little Shop of Horrors (November 9 through 18).
The Wizard of Oz
Denton Community Theater, 214 West Hickory St, Denton. $20-30. 940-382-1915.