Pearthree stages a delightful 'Oz'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It takes courage to mount a stage version of "The Wizard of Oz" with a cast of nearly 60, including two flying witches, a dog and almost two dozen children portraying Munchkins. It also takes heart and brains.

The Maryland Arts Festival production at Towson University's Stephens Hall Theatre has the courage, heart and brains. It also has a pert, sensitive, strong-voiced Dorothy in Lauren Williams, a senior at Carver Center for Arts and Technology, as well as additional music (including one full song that was cut from the classic 1939 MGM movie) and some nifty new choreography for crows, jitterbugs and an entire poppy field, created by director/choreographer Todd Pearthree.

Adapted from the Judy Garland movie by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987 and restaged at Madison Square Garden a decade later, the musical doesn't reinterpret the beloved screen version of L. Frank Baum's novel in the manner of, say, the hip, black 1975 "The Wiz." Instead, the show retains Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's tuneful score as well as the movie's dialogue and overall look.

The movie is a masterpiece, so this is no small order. But Pearthree's production comes impressively close to filling it. Besides Williams' Dorothy, there are standout performances by Richard Lloyd as the loose-limbed Scarecrow and Lauran Taylor as Glinda, the good witch.

Because the show hews so reverently to the movie, it's a mite disappointing that the Kansas scenes are in color, instead of black and white, depriving Oz of some of its splendor.

But Towson isn't completely to blame; the backdrops (and some of the costumes) were rented. And, what this ambitious production gets right is a wonder to behold.

Show times at Stephens Hall, 7900 York Road, are 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and July 27; with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and July 23, through July 29. Tickets: $21 for adults, $15 for children 12 and under. Call 410-830-2787.

... and Pearthree rolls along

"The Wizard of Oz" offers a peek at Todd Pearthree's knack for entertaining children, and now the local director/choreographer will be doing that full time as the newly appointed producer-director of Pumpkin Theatre.

"It's a very healthy theater, and we're going to change the angle somewhat. The shows will still be for children, but we're going to aim for shows that the whole family can enjoy," said Pearthree, whose experience includes staging more than 200 productions and teaching at the Peabody Conservatory.

The 2000-2001 season includes: "Aladdin" (Sept.16-24); "Rumpelstiltskin" (Dec. 2-10); "The Rainforest Adventures" (March 10-18), by Creative Opera Ensemble ; "The Princess and the Pea" (March 31-April 8); and "Tales from Down Under" (May 19-20), by Barefoot Puppets. Pumpkin performs on weekends at St. Timothy's School, 8400 Greenspring Ave., Stevenson. Five-show subscriptions are $35. Call 410-828-1814.

One-night stands

Ah, the games people play. Mark Scharf's "Beltway Roulette" is about a risky game in which an unhappy, unstable married woman has one-night stands with men she picks up in bars along the Washington Beltway.

As is clear from the rather violent opening scene of this Baltimore Playwrights Festival production, Celeste is not only aware of the dangers in this game, she courts and augments them.

Directed by Mike Moran at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, Scharf's play is basically a character study. Celeste envisions herself as a hard, cold hedonist, a woman for whom overindulgence in sex, drugs and alcohol is a way of life. Fittingly, actress Gina DiPeppe's Celeste is as alluring as she is self-destructive.

There's a ghoulish fascination to watching DiPeppe's high-octane, low-self-esteem Celeste. But Scharf is trying to do more than appeal to our morbid curiosity. He's trying to inject a dose of psychology into the mix.

It turns out there's a flip side to Celeste's personality. Underneath the bawdy bravado is a lonely, needy woman, although neither DiPeppe's performance nor Scharf's less-than-subtle script develops this side sufficiently for it to ring true.

The play's three male characters serve as foils for Celeste, which means they're all decent guys at heart, and they're sympathetically portrayed by Joseph Riley, Richard Goldberg and Joseph M. Dunn.

Yet even though she's on stage almost the entire evening, Celeste remains an enigma. And, because we never get to know the protagonist, any attempts at insight become little more than pop psychology. The actors, and DiPeppe in particular, do some admirable work, but in the end, "Beltway Roulette" is a gamble that doesn't pay off.

Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through July 29. Tickets: $10. Call 410-752-1225.

Spotlighters' new owners

In further news from the Spotlighters, Bob Russell and Jonathan Claiborne are the theater's new owners. Russell, a Columbia-based financial writer and desktop publisher, has directed five Spotlighters shows in the past, three featuring Claiborne, a Towson attorney.

The theater, which opened in October 1962, went up for sale a few months after its founder, Audrey Herman, died late last year. "I've seen Bob's energy level. I've seen his imagination run wild. I think that's important," Herman's sister, Genevieve Nyborg, said of Russell. "I think that Audrey had a great imagination, and I think that helped her in a lot of cases where other people would have been more conservative."

Russell plans to continue Herman's legacy with a few changes. He's already hired the first paid employee in the Spotlighters' history - Bart Wirth, whose title is production manager.

Also, the new season will feature longer runs of fewer shows, most likely a half dozen during the regular September-to-June season, plus two Playwrights Festival offerings in the summer. Already on the schedule are: A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters" (Sept. 15-Nov. 5); William Mastrosimone's "Extremities" (Jan. 12-Feb. 11); Martin McDonagh's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" (April 13-May 12); and "Eating Raoul, The Musical" (May 25-June 30), by Paul Bartel, Jed Feuer and Boyd Graham.

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