Names that would probably not leap to the forefront of your cranium would be Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and Zoltán Kodály. And yet the recordings of music by those 20th century masters that serve as the accompaniment for Ballet Memphis's dance version of the classic film are so well chosen that you'd think they were composed exactly for the purpose.
That canny choice of music isn't the only reason this ballet version of "The Wizard of Oz" was so entertaining, of course. Steven McMahon's eclectic and character-driven choreography, Bruce Bui's colorful costumes, Andrew Kovach's simple but effective sets, and Andrew Meyers' minimalist yet dramatic lighting all combined to make this a genuine "all ages" show. We saw it at the Saturday matinee, and the parents were clearly enjoying it as much as their Munchkin offspring.
The scenario follows the film closely and, rather like Beijing opera, clearly assumes that the audience is familiar enough with the source material to fill in the details. When we saw the oversize, distorted shadow of Rafael Ferreras, Jr., (slyly fraudulent as the Wizard) flamboyantly gesticulating at Dorothy and her three companions, for example, it was easy to recall the oversize, distorted projection of Frank Morgan's face from the movie. Likewise, Travis Bradley's loose-limbed, acrobatic clumsiness as the Scarecrow immediately called to mind Ray Bolger's equally magical dancing in the original.
Ballet Memphis's "Wizard of Oz" is not, in short, for those who have somehow never seen the film. But then, given how popular the film has been over the decades, that's pretty small potatoes as criticism goes.
The company has assembled a wonderful cast of dancers for this tour. Julie Niekrasz (Glinda in the evening performances) was a wistful and charming Dorothy, Dylan G-Bowley an amusingly robotic as the Tin Man, and Kendall G. Britt Jr. the very essence of comic feline bravado as Lion. Crystal Brothers (Aunt Em in the evenings) was a wonderfully sinuous and gravity defying Wicked Witch while Virginia Pilgrim (Dorothy in the evenings) was cheerfully sugary as Glinda. Daniel Russell Cooke was a sympathetic Uncle Henry, and Bryn Gilbert made a strong impression in the small but vital role of the awful Miss Gulch.
The corps de ballet (which included dancers from some of the smaller roles) filled in as poppies, snowflakes, flying monkeys (with some very evocative Fosse-esque choreography), and citizens of the Emerald City. Students from COCA's dance program portrayed the Munchkins and children of Oz. It's a nifty local tie-in and, again, a sign of the intelligence behind this production in that it saves the company the hassles of travelling with child performers.
It is, I suppose, possible that hard-core dance lovers might dismiss overtly commercial efforts like "Wizard of Oz" (although Ballet-Dance Magazine certainly seemed to like the 2007 premiere), but the fact is that very few performing arts organizations can survive these days without the occasional crowd pleaser. You can't champion newer and more innovative work (as Ballet Memphis clearly does; their motto is "reach further") without something guaranteed to pay the bills. If the size of the house this past Saturday afternoon was any indication, "The Wizard of Oz" is does that, and delivers a satisfying piece of dance theatre in the process. I'd call that a win-win.
The Ballet Memphis production of "The Wizard of Oz" played the Touhill Performing Arts Center January 24 and 25, produced by Dance St. Louis. The Dance St. Louis season continues February 28 and March 1 at the Touhill with Diavolo, a company of modern dancers athletes, gymnasts, ballet dancers, martial artists, actors, and stunt performers, the blurs the boundary between dance and circus arts. For more information: dancestlouis.org.