Friday, August 14, 2009

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Dorothy, Toto, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, the Munchkins, and the Wizard himself are back—in Amy Heidish’s charming, delightful, and surprisingly original Say Goodbye, Toto, a Wizard Of Oz not just for the kiddies.

Heidish’s comedy (a co-production of the Ark Theatre Company and Playwrights 6) sticks closely to L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s tale but does so from a fresh new point of view—Toto’s. In Say Goodbye, Toto (a curious title, since not a single character says “Goodbye”), Toto speaks, though unfortunately for the pooch, no one in Kansas can understand him, least of all the person he’s most eager to talk to, his beloved “Babe” aka Dorothy Gale.

Just as Judy Garland did in the MGM movie classic, Say Goodbye, Toto’s Dorothy (Renee Scott) longs for “a whole world out there beyond the farm. And all I see is grey.” Unlike the movie’s Toto, who could only say “Bow wow,” playwright Heidish’s talkative canine (Joseph Porter) informs us from the get-go that he cares not a hoot what’s beyond the farm. “I’m right here,” he tells his uncomprehending mistress. “I’m all you need.”

Within minutes of this declaration, however, Dorothy and Toto are running for the cellar to escape the approaching cyclone and the next thing you know, they’re being greeted by a pair of the nuttiest, quirkiest, cutest Munchkins ever (Anna Quirino Miranda and Jordana Oberman), a sort of green-frocked female version of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The two immediately determine that Toto must be a sorcerer, and kowtow before him, smacking their Munchkin heads to the ground in a show of loyalty which prompts Dorothy to wonder if perhaps they don’t have nerve endings in their foreheads. There’s also a cat (Tracy Eliott) in the Marvelous Land Of Oz, who surprisingly can understand whatever Toto says, and who just may be more than she seems.

The Munchkins present Dorothy with a gift, the “Sparkly Shoes” belonging to the late Locasta, the Wicked Witch of the East, whose house Dorothy has fallen upon. (In case you’re wondering why they’re not “Ruby Slippers,” those red-gemmed pumps are the property of MGM, and unlike Baum’s novel, not yet in the public domain.) Meanwhile, Toto has run off and encountered the Witch (Alice Ensor), whose dress keeps coming apart without the brooch stolen by the aforementioned cat, and who wants more than anything to know where to find said Sparkly Shoes.

Any variation of The Wizard Of Oz wouldn’t be complete without the three companions who accompany Dorothy as she follows the Yellow Brick Road, and it is here that Heidish’s tale begins to take flight, for these three fellow travelers are mirror opposites of their L. Frank Baum counterparts. Lion (Andres Ramacho) turns out to be indeed “the bravest in all the land,” Scarecrow (Mike Fallon) the smartest, and Tin Man (Brant Mahnken) the most compassionate. What? A Lion who’s not cowardly, a Scarecrow who actually has a brain, and a Tin Man with a heart? Stick around and you’ll find out why.

Say Goodbye, Toto takes its titular hero (and Dorothy et al) on that well-known journey—across a wide ravine, then a river, and of course, that soporific field of poppies, prompting a hallucinogenic dream sequence. Still, nothing can stop our Yellow Brick Road-followers from going to see the Wizard (Jake Elsas). When they do at last find themselves in his presence, though, they are greeted not by that booming-voiced disembodied head we remember so well from the movie—but by a bear, a duck, and a rabbit—in puppet form one and all, prompting Toto to wisecrack, “There’s a whole farm back there!”

What makes Say Goodbye, Toto much more than just another Wizard Of Oz retread is the way playwright Heidish tweaks L. Frank Baum’s iconic characters just enough to make them her very own. Many laughs come from Dorothy’s inability to understand even the simplest of Toto’s remarks, as when the doggie insists that the Lion bow down to him, and all he gets is a swat on the nose and a “Hush” from Dorothy, who’s only heard barking. There’s also Toto’s comic interplay with his nemesis the Cat. (Toto: You got a crush, I get it. I’m adorable. Cat: Fleabag, I’m trying to help you.) I like the way Heidish maintains Baum’s stilted dialog all the while making it just slightly twisted as well. (Dorothy, waking up from her poppy-induced nap: Oh dear. Could you kindly tell the hammer to stop hitting my head?”) Also, Toto’s relationship with Dorothy will resonate with anyone who’s had mismatched feelings for someone else.

Director Jamie Virostko deserves high marks for bringing Heidish’s script to vivid stage life and guiding her troupe of comedically gifted actors to performance gems. One of Virostko’s inspirations was to use Heidish’s two adorable Munchkin girls to facilitate scene changes, literally becoming the wind that blows our heroes across the ravine, the river that needs to be crossed, and the poppies that put our fearless band to sleep.

Having been part of the Playwrights 6 workshopping of Say Goodbye, Toto, I’m particularly impressed by how absolutely perfectly cast this World Premiere production is, beginning with the phenomenal Joseph Porter as a pugnacious, needy, caring and totally adorable Toto. (Just watch the way he lays on his back, legs extended up, luxuriating in one of Dorothy’s tummy rubs.) A sweet but spunky Scott pays tribute to the movie’s Dorothy, all the while giving this Kansas girl her own particular edge. Ramacho is a hoot as the oh-so-full-of-himself Lion, Fallon has loads of fun with the highly intellectual (yet still distinctively supple) Scarecrow, and Mahnken likewise makes the most of this biggest-hearted Tin Man. Eliott is every bit as purrfectly feline as Porter is ruff-ruff(-and-tumble) canine. As the witch, Ensor is an amusing mixture of imperiousness and frazzle. Elsas may well get the most laughs of anyone (without initially showing his face) manning and voicing three of the funniest puppets seen on an L.A. stage since Avenue Q. Finally, taking quirkiness to new levels, are the splendidly gleeful duo of Miranda and Oberman as the Munchkinettes.

Scenic designer Christina Silvoso has created a gorgeously fantastical set painted in swirls of green (what else?) which serves well as all of the Ozian locales, lit in Technicolor splendor by Jeffrey M. Davis. (If only the two had concocted a way to make the Kansas scenes fit Dorothy’s description, “It’s just so grey here.”) Ryan Lennon’s costumes are clever takeoffs on the tale’s original illustrations, with special kudos due the Lion’s curlicue paper mane and the Munchkin’s full green skirts and horizontally-striped stockings. (Lennon also designed the great puppets.) Christopher Moscatiello’s excellent sound design employs just the right mix of what appears to be original music setting the mood for each scene, and of course the requisite cyclone’s roar.

Like the best Disney animated films, Say Goodbye, Toto is family entertainment which proves equally enjoyable for adults as for kids, with plenty of lines to tickle grownups’ funny bones all the while whizzing past the younger set. Last night’s audience was adults only, and everyone seemed to be having an absolute ball. I certainly did!

Ark Theatre at the Hayworth, 2511Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Through September 19. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 7:00. Reservations: 323 969-1707

--Steven Stanley
August 6, 2009

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