The witches stole the show

Wizard of Oz (Play)
Based on the book by L. Frank Baum
Adaptation, book and lyrics by Jim Eiler
Music by Jim Eiler and Jeanne Bargy
Directed by Joy Virata

I like my witches over the top – little wonder why I found myself enjoying immensely the press preview of “Wizard of Oz” staged by Repertory Philippines Children’s Theater on Aug. 18, largely due to the performances of Liesl Batucan as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, and the scene-stealing Pinky Marquez as the Wicked Witch of the West.  

(I’d been invited to the preview by virtue of my having written up my interview with director Joy Virata and assistant director Rem Zamora – who also plays Uncle Henry, the Wicked Witch, and The Secretary – Revisiting Oz, published in my old newspaper, Businessworld.)

Glinda fairly brims over with bubbly cheer, her yellow curls bouncy and her pastel-blue gown puffy, a crown in the same hue tilted slightly in the corner as though hinting at her kooky world-view, even as her wand is a shiny extension of her fluttering arm.

Her every languid wave, flirty wink, and wide-eyed studiedly innocent stare delivers the message: “I’m the best friend you’ll ever have and don’t I just look positively delish?”

Kids will certainly appreciate her frank logic and somewhat inappropriate merriment when she tells Dorothy that since it’s the latter’s house that fell on the Wicked Witch of the East, then the girl from Kansas had as good as destroyed the abominable creature that caused Munchkinland (those cute munchkins!) such sorrow – and upon her demise, such joy.

(They’ll laugh just as heartily when Glinda comes to a realization, at the end of the show, that she could have saved Dorothy heaps of toil and trouble – if she had been better informed and her magic wiles stronger.) 

For her part, the nameless Wicked Witch of the West (certainly not Wicked’s Elphaba, mind you) has a headgear of tendrils that every antagonist has sported since Medusa’s coils of snakes – not to mention sorceress-types like Maleficent’s (of Sleeping Beauty notoriety) ram horns and Edea’s (of Final Fantasy VIII slickness) mutated side-swept horn-gear – and of course, the patented evil laugh that no villain can do without. 

The nameless one’s colors are dirt, mud, pus and scarlet, and her gestures wide, feverish and comically nefarious. She has the best entrance – coming down from the sky on a broom contraption – and also the best exit – her famous melting from an accidental bath of boiling water.    

“I’m never really ‘wicked’…,” says Ms. Marquez of her character, which is pretty much accurate in the sense that the witch acts more like a spoiled, imperious child who doesn’t get her way, than a grumpy old woman who would eat you up, and feed scraps to her winged monkeys.

Kids, with whom she periodically interacts with – at one point, she asks the audience, “Would you like to see the insides of the Tin Man? Yes? Thaaaank you!” – will consider her their baddest best pal, and still rejoice in her expected destruction at the end of the show.

Repertory’s biggest advantage is good material – songs such as “Munchkin Holiday,” “Glinda’s Hello,” “So Far, So Good,” “No Brain Have I” (sung by the Scarecrow), “No Heart Have I” (sung by the Tin Man), and “No Guts Have I” (sung by the Cowardly Lion), “Wicked Witch Stew,” among others, are engaging and catchy enough that the audience little misses “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the much-loved and quite separate MGM production.   

Their best strength would be gifted actors that know exactly what to do with the material, and this includes the seasoned Cara Barredo (“I’ve been practically in every play” she admits) as the pint-sized Dorothy, the over six feet tall James Stacey as the lovable “flippety flopetty” Scarecrow, Oliver Usison as the Cowardly Lion (“It’s okay if I get nervous because I’m supposed to be nervous anyway,” he says), and Hans Eckstein as a very competent Tin Man (alternating with Nic Campos, who attended the press preview as well).   

Repertory Philippines Children’s Theater, “gleefully employed” in Ms. Virata’s words for 20 years, have staged 25 productions and reached a viewing audience of 1.7 million to date. This year’s “Wizard of Oz,” due to budget constraints mayhap, has only two revolving casts – at three to four shows a day, that’s great professionalism. You can bet your bottom dollar these actors know how to get the job done and further, have great commitment to their art.

No better exhibition of that can be made than Aug. 18’s after-show surprise tribute to Ms. Virata, for her 20 years in children’s theater, which showcased a medley of songs from their very first “Sleeping Beauty,” alongside other Jim Eiler/Jeanne Bargy musicals such as “Jack and the Beanstalk,” a slew of Disney productions including “Mulan” and “Aladdin,” and of course, last year’s very successful “Seussical.”   

Wizard of Oz” is not my favorite play – or even a particularly favored children’s tale – but nevertheless I quite enjoyed Repertory’s production. Despite a wish for the graphics to be a little bit more sophisticated in this 3D age (although the retro-feel did work well enough), one has got to admit that Rep does know how to put on a show.

Mr. Campos summed it up pretty well when he noted, “When kids read their first storybook, you are actually helping them – who they will be when they grow up, so it’s all the more important that you give them these kinds of experiences, these kinds of themes, of knowing the best of yourself – heart, courage, brain, coz then they will believe in those parts of themselves. This is like their first storybook, except it’s right there in front of them, the good kind of 3D, not the bad kind of 3D.”    

Wizard of Oz” runs until Dec. 17 at 2/F Onstage, Greenbelt 1. For tickets, call 571-6926, 571-4941, e-mail info@repertory.ph, or log on to www.repertory.ph. Tickets are also available through Ticketworld at 891-9999 or www.ticketworld.com.ph.

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