American Conservatory Theater is pushing hard on the “there’s no place like home” theme in its new, terrifically entertaining production of “The Wizard of Oz.”
And understandably so. You can plainly see just how hard hit the downtown area—where ACT’s two venues reside—has been, post-pandemic. Adding hometown touches to the show—on opening night, a sudden onstage appearance by the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Freedom Band, a curated list of audience members’ favorite local spots read aloud at one point, and a general rah-rah-for-us vibe— certainly felt welcome (if a bit extraneous), especially after the national hoopla about San Francisco as a “failed city.”
Most importantly, though, this is the feel-good-to-end-all-feel-good plays, with the acting, the directing, the design work and just the right amount of audience participation to make it all mesh beautifully.
The fairly long, two-act musical is of course based on the 1939 movie, which was based on L. Frank Baum’s popular children’s book from 1900. The film’s music and lyrics were by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, and this adaptation, directed and choregraphed here by Sam Pinkleton, was written by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Clever comic touches abound: sight gags (an especially goofy one in the finale; no spoilers here); a delicious set of varied popular dances, including the jitterbug, in Act 2; wonderfully over-the-top, gender-fluid characterizations; and just the right amount of interaction with audience members, who get to wave yellow napkins and warble “Follow the yellow brick road!”
The acting, in this locally sourced cast, is a reminder, if one is needed, of the abundance of out-of-the-box ingenuity and talent here at home.
For example, this Glinda the Good Witch is no sweet-voiced candy-ass; gliding in on a swing on an overhead wire and dressed in bouffant pink from head to toe (imaginative costumes by David Zinn, who also designed the equally inspired set), she’s played by Katrina Lauren McGraw with a hearty, larger-than-life joviality.
Equally unexpectedly, Danny Scheie’s floppy, loose-limbed Scarecrow is sardonic, even downright rude.
As the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, Darryl V. Jones and a sweet-faced Cathleen Riddley, respectively, find all sorts of nuances in their roles that might erase your childhood memories of Jack Haley and Bert Lahr entirely.
And Chanel Tilghman as a feisty Dorothy, with a mop of curly black hair — and dressed, appropriately enough, like a kid on a farm — brings a set of clear lilting vocal chops to the role. Her longing for home crackles with energy rather than helpless wistfulness and sentimentality.
Courtney Walsh, dressed in white and looking deceptively like a country & western singer, sinks her chops into the role of the Wicked Witch of the West, finding endless oddball ways to be nasty. It’s great how she and her creepy winged, humanoid monkey communicate by tooting on kazoos.
This production goes all out, with an onstage, five-member band and an excellent ensemble playing multiple roles (the solemn parade of pumpkin-headed Winkies is thrillingly creepy). That’s not to mention the transition from monochrome-gray Kansas prairie, by way of a cleverly chaotic tornado, to the land of Oz, which turns out to be as colorful and tacky as Las Vegas, all neon and glitter (Zinn’s scenic design is endlessly inventive).
Special credit goes to Toto, a perky pink puppet pup (designed by Amanda Villalobos), and to El Beh, a veritable windmill of intricate flourishes and gestures as the magnificent wizard him/herself.
Ultimately there’s something incredibly satisfying about being among an entire audience singing “Ding dong, the witch is dead!” along with the hometown cast. And hoping it’s true.
American Conservatory Theater’s “The Wizard of Oz” runs through June 25 at Toni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$110. Call (415) 749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.