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Dancing up a storm in 'Wizard of Oz'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I saw no tigers or bears (oh, my!) at Jim Rouse Theatre for Performing Arts on Saturday afternoon.

But I did come across a lion - albeit a cowardly one - in the company of cygnets, swans, monkeys, crows, an adorable lady bug and, of course, a scarecrow, a man of tin and a dark-haired, pigtailed little girl named Dorothy.

That leonine sighting combined with a vision of toe shoes as far as the eye could see could mean only one thing: Kathi Ferguson's Howard County Ballet was dancing up a storm (literally and figuratively) in a choreographed version of Frank L. Baum's immortal tale "The Wizard of Oz."

Indeed, this large cast so chock-full of dancers of all ages was a delight to watch from start to finish in this first of two Saturday performances.

In the afternoon, the role of Dorothy was danced by Rebecca Friedman, who was graceful, strong and quite dynamic in her leading role.

In the novel and in any staged version true to the spirit of the work, it is Dorothy's stature that must animate the intentions of her three companions, and that certainly was the case here.

Elizabeth Snyder's Scarecrow was limber to a fault, complete with some remarkable spins and rolls as the man of straw was still attached to his post.

Ben Cramer's Tin Man seemed a bit understated in his first appearance, but become more and more interesting to watch once the solo quartet came together.

Erin Maskell posed and flexed with great abandon upon entering as the lion, but soon had her knees knocking in the grand tradition of cowardly types everywhere.

We also were treated to the truly malevolent presence whipped up by the statuesque Mary Hong, whose menacing movements as the Wicked Witch of the West were particularly vivid in the "Witches' Sabbath" music culled from Hector Berlioz's phantasmagoric "Symphonie Fantastique."

The musical selections, which ranged from 19th-century France (Berlioz) to 20th-century Russia (Prokofieff and Kabalevsky), were melded quite effectively to create a seamless score out of several disparate sources.

There were other things to admire as well.

One was the unflagging seriousness displayed by the younger members of the troupe. Everyone was focused; no one took the stage merely to look cute and get off. Crows never stopped crowing, monkeys remained very much in character and Munchkinland had a confident and graceful mayor in young Leiland Charles.

Projections of prairie houses, the yellow-brick road, Emerald City and a gigantic rainstorm provided backdrops that worked nicely, and I was quite taken with the creativity on display in the placement of the fluorescent limbs that made up the all-powerful Oz.

The Howard County Ballet works hard to create an educational experience for its dancers and audiences, and this was in evidence Saturday. Before the performance, director Ferguson brought her Dorothy on stage to convey the basics of ballet mime.

It helped everyone - this grizzled reviewer included - to be reminded how no means no on the ballet stage as in life.

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