By Cindy Whitehair and Perry Whitehair
What do you get when you mash up one of America’s favorite musicals with an equally beloved movie musical AND the wild and wacky imagination of Eric R. Jensen? It could only be Off Broadway Theatre’s Wicked Wizard of Ahhs playing now through April 12. The Wicked Wizard of Ahhs is the wacky story of Dorrie (played by Chelsea Baldwin) whose home in Kamas was swept in to the Land of Ahhs by a tornado. Desperate to get home to Kamas, Dorrie must traverse Ahhs to Emery City in hopes that the mighty Wizard (Jason Unruh) can help her get home. Along the way she must battle the Wicked Belva Bub (Mikael Short), but with the help of Gwendolyn the Good Witch (Kris Cox), Straw Man (Austinn Jensen), Tin Can (Justin Bradley) and Lionel the Lion (Clarence Strohn) how can she possibly not get her wish?
If you’ve never seen a production at OBT, you are missing out on a real treat. OBT’s space is a renovated old movie theater. The space has a wonderful 1930/1940’s vintage era feel that reminds me (Cindy) a lot of the lovely old movie house in the town I grew up in. The staff of volunteers are always friendly and quick to offer assistance if you need it.
Writer/Director Eric R. Jensen did an overall great job putting together another fun show. The script is appropriately cheesy and irreverent and the digs at local culture are always fun. My only quibble is that at every show I have seen there has taken digs at the same usual places – BYU, Salt Lake Community College, Magna and the Granite School District. While they are known quantities and rather target rich, there is enough ground in this valley to shake things up and not take shots at the same old targets.
Chelsea Baldwin’s Dorrie was a spunky go-getter. Part little girl (the opening scene tantrum was screamingly funny and a little TOO realistic if you are a parent) and part young women, Dorrie was no shrinking Violet content to sit on the sidelines. No one was getting between her and what she wanted.
While Dorrie is the focus of the show the shows stars are, without a doubt, the dueling witches – Gwendolyn and Belva Bub. Mikael Short was clearly having a blast channeling both her inner diva and her inner witch as Belva Bub. Her “Kill The Girl” (to the tune of “I’m Not That Girl” from Wicked) was positively frightening. Kris Cox (Gwendolyn) was the perfectly good foil to evil Belva Bub. The highlight of the show was their first act close “Try Applying Vanity” (sung to “Defying Gravity” from Wicked). They mastered the tight harmonies the song requires and the body language and eye contact made the relationship between the two characters real. It truly was one of those moments that make a theater aficionado remember exactly WHY they love theater.
Straw Man, Tin Can and Lionel were all perfectly cast – as individuals and as a unit. The three of them truly belonged together and worked well together. Justin Bradley’s facial expression more than made up for being in a “tin” suit. I don’t know if it was intentional or not but his vocal patterns and inflections were very reminiscent of Jack Haley, who played Tin Man from the movie. Clarence Strohn showed why he is an OBT favorite. While Lionel was not as big of a part as Straw Man or Tin Can, his flair for physical comedy made sure you knew he was there.
Austinn Jensen’s Straw Man without a doubt stole the show. Naturally loopy and off kilter, Austinn has his father’s knack for knowing when he has the audience in the palm of his hand and he refuses to let go. We saw a very brief glimpse of this at SPA’s Little Shop of Horrors but it is fully on display here. He took one simple act–being released from the nail that was holding him up in the cornfield–into a dance that carried him through the rest of the show.
The supporting cast, Jason Unruh as Uncle Harry, the Wizard and Tree, Kyle Dunshee and Ariana Weiss had to have been costume change dervishes backstage because they were frequently on and off stage as some new character or another. It was fun watching where these three would pop up next. And I simply cannot forget the Crunchkins. These kids were fabulous. The Lollipop-Lullaby League/West Side Story Sharks/Jets mash up was seriously funny. Perry particularly liked Lainey Jackson’s “Maria” in the mash up. She did a very good job.
The technical aspects of this show were quite good. I know OBT has been working on improving their sound system and last night – it showed. The sound by Erin Orr was crisp, clear and much improved over previous shows. The set design by Eric R. Jensen and others made great use of their space. The design for the Wizard’s Palace was the highlight of the show. It was beautiful and complex and the mask – awesome. Lighting design, also Erin Orr, were good for the space as well. Perry especially loved the lighting for the end of Act 1 where you where you have “offstage” characters looking and interacting with characters onstage. He felt it really did what it was designed to do.
All in all, OBT’s Wicked Wizard of Ahhs is one of those shows that you go to when you need a good long belly laugh.
The Off Broadway Theatre presents The Wicked Wizard of Ahhs by Eric R. Jensen. Performances are every Friday, Saturday and Monday at 7:30 PM from now until April 12, 2014. The theater is located at 272 South Main Street in Salt Lake City. Tickets are $10.00 to $16.00 and can be purchased by phone, online or at the box office.