Thursday, February 14, 2013

Road to Freedom? - The Power of Harriet T and The Wizard of Oz - Theatre Reviews

The Power of Harriet T! - Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Michael Miller, Directed by Tanisha Taitt
Runs until Feb. 22nd 2013

The Wizard of Oz - Ed Mirvish Theatre - Toronto, ON - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by Harold Arlen, Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, Original Background Music by Harold Stothart, Additional Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by Tim Rice, Adapted and Directed by Jeremy Sams

Watching children's theatre, or theatre appropriate for young people, always seems to demand whether judgement should be graded on a curve, and whether it works as a show for the intended, or for all. While I wouldn't want to diminish theatre for young people as any lesser of an artform, the demands towards a younger audience need to address a difference in concentration levels, and an understandable language level, all preferably without underestimating their intelligence and without talking down towards them. What works for young minds may not live up to an adults, and vice versa, but I would like to think that if a show works, it still works.

Two of Toronto's latest theatrical shows that are marketing to a younger audience seemed to have caused various degrees of restlessness in the youngsters at my viewing though also seemed to entertain them on various levels, while my adult mind probably overanalyzed the show more than it should have.

The Power of Harriet T! is the powerful tale of Harriet T., a Black slave who recounts her struggles with her nasty White owner, and her escape via the underground railway to the north and eventually Canada. It is an important historical tale that provides the stage with some haunting imagery, as directed by Tanisha Taitt on Kimberly Purtell's (purposefully) imbalanced set. While the tale may pull no big surprises in the story to the adults in the room (though still no less disturbing), it certainly seemed shocking to the young audience who seemed to justly react to the racism and unjust actions on stage as Harriet T. endured her slave life in the South. Miller's play doesn't pull any theatrical punches and sometimes the dialogue seemed a tad simplified, but it leaves the power of the story, and of the human struggle as its main focus, and that is powerful in itself.

The new revised version of the classic film The Wizard of Oz is brought to you by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and various producers including Warner Brothers, all happily looking to bringing the classic movie to the stage. While I never really thought of The Wizard of Oz film as a musical, it does have numerous songs that have become legendary and classics in the pop culture canon. To fill out a stage musical, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have slipped in many of their own songs into the story of Dorothy and her trip to Oz. Unfortunately, while the road on the Yellow Brick Road has some fun times, the show felt pedestrian, and decent at best.

Lisa Horner does a cackling job hamming it up as The Wicked Witch of the West, while Jamie McKnight and Mike Jackson are wonderfully amusing as The Scarecrow and Tin Man, respectively. Cedric Smith plays the Wizard of Oz with the right amount of thundering misaligned authority. The ensemble seems to be made up of some wonderfully attractive and abled dancers, but who seem wasted here dancing Arlene Phillips' clunky and embarrassing choreographed moves (and I only wished they could be doing the show Chicago instead).

While I did not think Danielle Wade was terrible as Dorothy, I also did not find her central enough to be the focus of the show, despite this being her story. Meanwhile, the dog playing Toto received the biggest applause and you can take that however you want.

There seemed to be a lack of that special magic in this theatre endeavor that made the original movie such a piece of cinematic history. The new songs add very little to the proceedings other than padding out the story, and the use of projections didn't blend very seamlessly into Robert Jones' impressive sets on some occasions. Still, there are moments of joy within the stage show, despite finding myself bored much of the time, and the cast does what it can with the classic material and tries to breathe some depth into a show that is still looking for its own heart.

Photo of The Power of Harriet T! by Mark Seow
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