Zilker Theatre’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is fun for parents and their munchkins

It’s hard to think of a movie musical more classic or family-friendly than 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz.” The movie, based on writer L. Frank Baum’s novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” has proven so popular over the decades that it was adapted into a stage production by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987.

Andrew Cannata, Hannah Roberts and Jordan Barron perform in “The Wizard of Oz,” the 59th annual Zilker summer musical presented by Zilker Theatre Productions. (TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The resulting show, with a book by John Kane (adapted from Baum as well as the screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf), music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, and background music by Herbert Stothart, has since become a standard across the UK and the United States.

PHOTOS: ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at Zilker Hillside Theater

Zilker Theatre Productions’ latest free summer musical, running through Aug. 12 at the Zilker Hillside Theater, is a new production of this version of “The Wizard of Oz.” This is the 59th annual Zilker Summer Musical, and the most expensive show to date, with a great deal of that money clearly going toward creating the magic of Oz as experienced by naïve young Dorothy Gale, a Kansas farm girl transported to the other-dimensional realm via a convenient tornado. Through liberal doses of both theatrical innovation and beautiful carpentry and design, director J. Robert Moore and scenic designer Paul Davis effectively evoke both the plainness of Kansas (pun intended) and the splendor of Oz.

Much like the movie it is based on, Bilker’s “The Wizard of Oz” is long on broad, entertaining character types and short on actual character development. However, the zany antics of Dorothy and her companions (the “brainless” Scarecrow, “heartless” Tin Man, and “courageless” Cowardly Lion) play well in the open-air atmosphere of the Zilker Hillside Theater, with its huge, all-ages audience.

The main cast of the show all give big, broad performances that would be over-the-top in a small theater, but work nicely in this context. Andrew Cannata, Jordan Barron and Kirk Kelso, as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, respectively, are vaudevillian in their physical comedy and banter, while Emily Perzan’s Wicked Witch delights more in being comedic than overtly scary.

MORE PHOTOS: The Zilker Summer Musical through the years

The production’s Dorothy, Hannah Roberts, is a star on the rise. She embodies the character’s youth and naivety in a charming, guileless manner, a complete turn-around from her delightfully dour portrayal of Wednesday Addams in last year’s Summer Stock Austin production of “The Addams Family.” She only manages to get upstaged by the exuberant full-cast numbers, which inventively feature children as the Munchkins of Oz performing the whimsical choreography of Adam Roberts (who is also the show’s musical director).

Zilker’s production of “The Wizard of Oz goes” beyond the show, itself, in order to create a full night of family entertainment. There are booths and amusements for kids to enjoy before the show, as well as refreshments that can be purchased both ahead of time and at intermission. Remember to bring a blanket and pillows along with some bug spray, and be sure to arrive early to pick out a good spot on the hillside.

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“The Little Mermaid” at Bass Concert Hall enchants visually, emotionally

“The Little Mermaid” musical, which is onstage at Bass Concert Hall through Sunday, is magical. Characters fly through the air, skate and dance as if they are swimming through the ocean. It’s one of the few musicals that use all the stage from top to bottom, back to front. You never know where Ariel will appear next.

Disney's "The Little Mermaid" stars Alison Woods as Ariel.
Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” stars Alison Woods as Ariel.

The musical rounds out the Disney movie by creating back story as well as letting us into the minds of more than just the lead character, Ariel. Ursula the sea witch is actually King Triton’s older sister. Who knew? Triton loves Ariel the most because she has her mother’s voice. And that mother is the reason why Triton hates humans. He thinks his wife was killed by them.

To give all this back story, the musical adds a lot of songs — a lot. More than half are not in the movie. They blend well, though, and feel like they should have been, but if you have “Little Mermaid” purists, it will be a tough sell. And if you have little ones, the hour and 23 minute movie becomes a two and a half hour musical with a 15 minute intermission. It also feels like all the secondary characters: Prince Eric, his adviser Grimsby, Ariel’s friend Flounder, the crazy seagull Scuttle, King Triton, Ariel’s sisters, and Ursula’s henchmen Flotsam and Jetsam were all given their signature song, which doesn’t always move this story forward.

Still, as a production, it is visually stunning, incredibly heartwarming and stunning. Alison Woods, who plays Ariel, has her precociousness and naiveté down. Her voice sounds straight from the movie, not an easy task considering the range that Ariel is expected to have. Jennifer Allen as Ursula is pure fun in her evilness. She gives a memorable performance and the choreography smartly uses her eight octopus legs to be characters of their own.

Also of note, the is one of the first productions at Bass Concert Hall where the sound was well done. It did not feel as if the actors were singing through mud and you could understand the lyrics almost all of the time. There was no whispers from the audience of “What did she say?” Instead, a lot of kids and even adults were repeating the lyrics or lines during intermission or after the show in approval of their cleverness.

“The Little Mermaid

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.Sunday.

Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive

Tickets: $35-$115

Information: texasperformingarts.org

Theater review: Twist gives us honey pot full of fun at Zach Theatre’s “Winnie the Pooh”

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh, Sara Burke as Piglet. Photo by Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh, Sara Burke as Piglet. Photo by Kirk Tuck

“Winnie the Pooh,” Zach Theatre’s opening musical in this year’s family series, lets children into the secret of theater. It starts with musician Allen Robertson warming up the audience by teaching the “Winnie the Pooh” dance.

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Russel Taylor, Will Cleveland, J. Quinton Johnson, Allen Robertson, and Sara Burke. Credit: Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Russel Taylor, Will Cleveland, J. Quinton Johnson, Allen Robertson, and Sara Burke.
Credit: Kirk Tuck

Later he appears on stage with the crew of the play: a set designer, a prop master, a stage hand and a costumer. They are going about their business, but suddenly they notice that there is an audience. Robertson declares, that no, it’s not an audience, it’s the backup dancers. This, of course, brings some giggles.

Indeed, there is an audience, and we’re told that we’ve come two weeks too early. But wait, we’ve paid money for this show! The behind-the-scenes crew will just have to put on the musical for us. They find the book on stage and begin sorting out who will play what.

It’s a delightful twist to this classic tale and the musical, which was written in 1964 by le Clanche du Rand with music from Allan J. Friedman and lyrics by author A.A. Milne and Kristin Sergel. The musical originally just starts with Pooh doing his morning exercises, not this behind-the-scenes crew turned actors vignette.

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh. Credit: Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh.
Credit: Kirk Tuck

The twist allows a young audience to not have to suspend disbelief. We know it’s not really a bear, an owl, a kangaroo, a piglet, a rabbit and a donkey. Instead, it’s an adult stage crew trying to play legendary animal characters. We see them try to transform into these animals by finding hats, scarves, shirts, jackets and aprons to fit their characters. We see them give one another stage directions, such as rabbits hop, so hop more.

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Sara Burke as Piglet and Russel Taylor as Eeyore. Credit: Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Sara Burke as Piglet and Russel Taylor as Eeyore.
Credit: Kirk Tuck

The fun is that the crew is very similar to their animal characters. The set designer who is chosen to play Pooh (Will Cleveland) is also a slow-motion kind of guy. The costumer (Sara Burke) has a ton of energy and positivity, perfect for Piglet and Roo. She also has the smarts of Owl. Another stage hand (J. Quinton Johnson) becomes the leader and narrator, qualities like Christopher Robin and Rabbit. The highlight is Russel, (Russel Taylor), who has as much enthusiasm as Eeyore, as he gets dragged into this production to play Eeyore and later awkwardly Kanga. He brought the biggest laughs, especially during the song-and-dance numbers.

Throughout, Allen Robertson plays the on-stage musician and coaches the crew-turned-actors on how to sing.

The kids in the audience of Friday night’s opener loved being part of the action. They loved being asked to dance and do the movements with the actors on stage; after all, they are the backup dancers, right? They loved with the actors talked to them.

If you come into this musical thinking you’re going to see a straight version of “Winnie the Pooh,” you might be disappointed, but probably you’ll be delighted with the change.

Zach Theatre’s education director Nat Miller, who directs this show, doesn’t do things in traditional ways. Last year, “The Three Little Pigs” were rock stars. Cinderella was alive in the imagination of a bilingual girl who created her out of a funnel with a doiley on it in “Cenicienta.”

This year, Zach is presenting a storybook season with “Winnie the Pooh,” running now through Dec. 12, the bilingual “Tomás and the Library Lady,” Jan. 15-Feb. 14; “James and the Giant Peach,” Feb. 19-April 10; and “Alice in Wonderland,” March 4-May 14. We can’t wait to see the twists that Miller finds for “James” and “Alice.”

“Winnie the Pooh.” 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 12. An autism and sensory-friendly performance is scheduled for 11 a.m. Oct. 31. $15-$20. Kleberg Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd. zachtheatre.org.