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Music-filled road to Oz at St. Gregory’s

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With warm thoughts of an emotional production of “The Wizard of Oz” just four years ago at St. Mary’s Drama Guild in Woodside, I followed the “not-so-yellow-brick” Hillside Avenue via bus to St. Gregory’s Theatre Group in anxious anticipation of their current summer production of the same play. Translating a uniquely sensitive, teary-eyed classic Hollywood film onto a local stage can be risky business. The film was filled with a gallery of legendary actors and had 1939 state-of-the-art special effects available to make the cyclone and the Technicolor land of Oz come to life. Any community theatre group will have to make certain compromises and re-tellings of the tale, bringing their own special trademarks to the story rather than trying to compete with the film.

St. Mary’s in Woodside has been around for well more than 50 years under the incandescent Lindo Meli, who focuses on bringing up emotions from deep within his cast members. I recall crying at the end of his production because the relationships of the very young Dorothy and her three friends were so deeply felt. St. Gregory’s, on the other hand, a mere “child” with “only 23 years” of community service, mounts productions that are characterized by technological effects and unbeatable production values, but often shortchanged on emotion. Frankly, when St. Gregory’s Dorothy said good-bye to her three friends, I didn’t feel the tiniest lump in my throat. Perhaps St. Gregory’s could learn a thing or two from its older counterpart in Woodside on what makes a local production truly memorable.

Special effects were in plentiful abundance at Gregorian Hall last Thursday night, to be sure. The opening sequence displayed a video of a cloudy sky with the opening credits scanning on screen. Together with the full-orchestra beautifully conducted by Jeff Arzberger, the audience felt submerged into the ambiance of a movie theatre. And the wonderful touch of showing Dorothy and Toto on screen and then appear as if they walked off the screen onto the stage was rather miraculous.

Minutes later, the cyclone was depicted by a strobe light effect, nice indeed. But within the strobe light, a visible band of extras was waving streamers, as if we were in a Japanese No drama. It simply did not work. Dorothy’s house along with a host of characters whirled by until the house actually fell on stage. Munchkinland was merely a set of tall vertical flowers, but filled out by a host of colorfully costumed Munchkins. The scene worked quite well. The rest of the scenes followed suit, made all the more colorful and stylish by the costumes designed by Margaret Richman, Francine Morgenstern, and Lydia Connelly.

The production often moved into the audience, having Dorothy dance down the yellow brick road over a ramp into the center of the house, where she met the Scarecrow, quite a beautiful effect. The joy of watching the Munchkin parade march down the ramp and past rows of parents and friends brought giggles and sighs from the house.

Indeed, the joy of this production was the amazing busloads of children, whether as Munchkins, Snowflakes, Monkeys, Jitterbugs, or Winkies. They were thoroughly rehearsed, with accurate timing and synchronized dance routines. Granted they are not trained singers, so that when notes got high, volume got low, but their thrill of being in “Oz” was well communicated. I was most impressed by the Munchkin Mayor, Daniel Moore, who had fine presence and sang with confidence and articulation. Moms, pops, and the entire families of these kids could be proud.

However, when it came to the adults in this production, articulation and projection were two sore points much of the time. St. Gregory’s mikes their lead performers, but apparently no one taught most of these actors how to speak slowly and articulately to avoid a “sonic mike blur.” I could barely distinguish a word from Lou Schimoler’s Professor Marvel, who seemed otherwise a colorful performer.

Miked or not, projection was also an issue with many performers. “Sing out, Louise!” was Mama Rose’s edict to her stage-numb daughter. The production staff at St. Gregory’s could have learned a thing or two from Mama Rose. Barely being able to hear “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and just about anything the Lion or Uncle Henry said became frustrating for me and others around me in the audience.

What makes “The Wizard of Oz” such a memorable film is the richness of its characters. Character development takes a lot of hard work from a knowing director and a committed cast. I was really pleased at how well the three pals, Hunk/the Scarecrow (Ernie Valvano), Hickory/the Tinman (David Arzberger), and Zeke/the Lion (Andrew Burke) diversified their characters from the very start. The clear winner, Tinman Arzberger, has a fine singing voice and dances well. He also has, what was a rarity in this production, clear articulation. Valvano’s Scarecrow was all high-energy, twitching, jumping, and dancing, as well as shouting all his lines and barking his songs at 120 decibels. He never modulated his approach and after about 10 minutes of this nonstop rigmarole I was ready to pull his energetic plug, if only I could have found it. But that’s a director’s job. Burke’s Lion suffered, as mentioned earlier, from lack of projection. He had a character, if only I could have heard it.

Dolores Voyer’s Glinda truly amazed me. I found it amazing that such a lovely lady with a legit soprano voice would deliver her entire part in a such monotonous drone, as if she were reading her lines from a newspaper. How could she not feel an ounce of magic, charm, or elegance that any “good witch” would certainly radiate in megawatts. Calling Billie Burke! Cecilia Vaicels’s long experience with this group shone like a star. To start with, I could hear every word she said — no articulation problems with her. And she created two quite distinct characters, the prim and proper Miss Gulch and the vicious Wicked Witch of the West. If her Miss Gulch wasn’t as dark or vicious as she could have been, she certainly made up for it with her high C cackles and physicality as the Witch. Congratulations on a star turn, Ms. Vaicels!

Colleen Meade’s Dorothy seemed rather angry for much of the beginning — or was that just good old Kansas spunk? Being sad and wistful would have made her more endearing. She came more into character as she interacted with her three friends, but the heartfelt poignancy that makes this character so meaningful never really emerged. However, her singing and dancing talents were never in question. On the other hand, her aunt, Diane Donohue, was quite poignant, projecting some real parental emotion in her few scenes. Father Kevin McBrien, the moderator of St. Gregory’s Theatre Group, got his chance to shine as the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, albeit as a videotaped, not live, special effect. How encouraging that a clergyman, by his active example, would take the time to encourage community theater in his parish. Not many other parishes are so lucky.

Adding up the pluses and minuses, I can recommend this production for families all throughout this borough. Under the committed team of Mickey Cutter and Mike Mango, St. Gregory’s production was well assembled and hopefully will draw a huge family audience. Director Peter Shaughnessy had to have worked overtime with this army of a cast and his hard work largely paid off. My hope is that he can think more about the emotions of his characters and prompt them on how to express their emotions, especially when there are peerless performances on film as models that the actors can learn from. Choreographers Andrea Andresakis and Mary Kennedy worked miracles in keeping everybody moving, providing simple and energetic steps that the children — and adults — could tackle successfully.

There is one more weekend left in the run, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. SGTG is located at St. Gregory the Great Gregorian Hall, 88th Avenue and Cross Island Parkway, Bellerose. Queens residents should support this fine group for all its efforts in keeping Queens Community Theatre going during the hot summer months when all other groups shut down. For reservations, call 224-4439.

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