Review: Royal Winnipeg Ballet brings some serious magic with Wizard of Oz

Josh Reynolds, Katie Bonnell, Stephan Azulay and Yosuke Mino in The Wizard of Oz. Photo: David Cooper

Most people’s perceptions of the L. Frank Baum story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz have been shaped by the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, the Kansas girl blown to a magical kingdom by a tornado. The colours, the songs and even the aphorisms have been carved into cultural history.

So it’s a challenge to make a new telling of the story unique and still be respectful of all that has gone before.

There’s little doubt that the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Oz has more than met that challenge. The show, which closes its Ottawa run Saturday evening at the National Arts Centre, is a seamless blend of the classic story ballet along with a sophisticated animation that was broadcast on a massive screen, colourful and inventive costumes and the most use of flying dancers ever to soar over the Southam Hall stage.

According to the program notes, there are 250 costumes in the show, using up to 3,500 metres of cloth, with some 60 costume changes. There are 115 pairs of shoes used including Dorothy’s ruby slippers with up to 400 crystals used. Along with all the other effects, no wonder the show cost about $1.1 million to create.

There are even nods in the video and in some of the set work to the movie. Recall, if you can, the flying cow that is caught up by the twister along with Dorothy and Toto in the movie. There is also wonderful use of puppets and other stagecraft to help catch the feeling of the storm and other atmospheric events along the way.

The ballet itself is up to the Royal Winnipeg’s always impressive standard. Saturday night the central figures of the Tin Man (danced by Ryan Vetter), the Scarecrow (Yue Shi) and the Lion (Tristan Dowbrowney) were by turns heartless, brainless and cowardly in welcome abundance. Alanna McAdie as Dorothy was a refreshing and hopeful presence throughout the two hour show.

Of all the puppets so well employed in this show, and there were many, Toto, the plucky little dog with his wagging tail and eager licks and leaps into the arms of welcoming character, was handled masterfully by Jenna Burns.

There is such seamless detail in the presentation of The Wizard that it’s almost unfair to single out moments. But the landing in Munchkinland, greeted by the colourful characters of this magical place, was a lot of fun. It included a parade of grasshoppers that seemed to be made up of some of the 22 young dancers from Ottawa who took part in the production.

The capture of Dorothy by the Flying Monkeys was frankly stunning. Four winged creatures dressed like storm troopers hovered some 15 feet above the stage before descending to whisk Dorothy off to the Wicked Witch’s castle. In the background monkey puppets on raised sticks added to the impact of this evil flock.

The Wizard of Oz was choreographed by Septime Webre (complete with a movable yellow brick road) with music by Matthew Pierce (which included a disco party in the Emerald City) for the Royal Winnipeg, the Kansas City Ballet and the Colorado Ballet. It should become a classic, if it isn’t already.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.