Tag Archives: Andrew Varela

Skylight’s ‘Oz’ is a perfect holiday show

The yellow brick road at Skylight Music Theatre leads to a refreshing evening of holiday entertainment that provides all the cheerful sentimentality you need for the season without overdosing you on Santas, snowflakes and carols.

The Wizard of Oz, a 1987 stage adaption of the classic MGM movie based on the books of L. Frank Baum, is a daunting work to stage. It demands numerous set changes, props and special effects. The big screen version went through five directors and 14 writers before the studio finally hollered, “Print.’

Linda Brovsky, who directs the Skylight production, was charged with creating something very big on a small budget — and it shows. But she and her team have managed to use that challenge to create something more enchanting than flashy pyrotechnic displays and massive sets can offer.

Scenic and lighting designer Peter Dean Beck and costume designer Kristy Leigh Hall have created imaginative but low-cost substitutes for elaborate stagecraft. Cardboard cutouts serve as trees and flowers, while actors on rolling stools covered by their costumes portray the Munchkins. Such “homemade” touches add a charming sort of tongue-in-cheek dimension to the production.

In addition to presenting a decidedly more upbeat take on the source material than the movie did, this production introduces musical numbers cut from the film. The most notable of these is “Jitterbug,” featuring the Wicked Witch’s subjects, who are dubbed “Winkies.” Much lower-tech and less threatening than the movie’s flying monkeys, the Winkies match the cartoonish spirit of this show.

The pared-down trimmings of the production put the onus on the backs of the performers, all of whom are up to the task and capably supported by a 10-piece orchestra directed by Leslie B. Dunner.

Susan Wiedmeyer is an earnest and wide-eyed Dorothy who manages to communicate fear and longing without crossing over the line of comedy. Her Dorothy is less angsty than Judy Garland’s fame-making screen version, but Wiedmeyer’s silvery, well-trained voice has the power to sell “Over the Rainbow” and Dorothy’s other demanding musical numbers.

As the dog-hating Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West, Liz Norton camps it up quite a bit, to the great delight of the production’s opening night audience.  Tall and menacing, with long, pointing fingers, Norton in her green makeup and oversized black hat has the stuff to make a small child quake in terror. But her cackle is more reminiscent of an acerbic Elaine Stritch than a child-killing monster. She satisfies the role while maintaining the comedic game plan.

Long, loose-limbed Ryan Cappleman is physically perfect as the rubbery scarecrow. As the show’s lead dancer, he seems capable of more than choreographer Pam Kriger has given him, but he’s delightful to watch. As the Tin Man, Doug Clemons displays a beautiful voice and the prerequisite soufulness.

Andrew Varela is a standout as the Cowardly Lion and a ringer for the film’s lion — Burt Lahr. With a great voice, a hilarious take on the character and excellent comic timing, he’s the king of the Oz-bound trekkers. Varela memorably milks “If I Only Had the Nerve” and “King of the Forest.”

On opening night, however, the scene-stealer was Hillie, the adorable and patient cairn terrier playing Toto. Hillie seemed to growl and bark perfectly on cue. She demonstrates why W.C. Fields cautioned fellow actors, “Never work with animals or children.” She’s almost distractingly cute at times.

But she can’t overwhelm the colorful characters and good cheer of this musical. With its nostalgic theme, familiar music and narrative of rebirth, it’s a perfect holiday show.

On stage

Skylight Music Theatre’s The Wizard of Oz continues at Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, through Jan. 4. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Wed. through Sun., with 2:30 p.m. matinees on Sat. and Sun. Tickets range from $22.50–$85. To order, call 414-291-7800 or visit www.skylightmusictheate.org.

Skylight succeeds with a personalized ‘Les Miz’

Les Misérables isn’t exactly traditional holiday fare. But Skylight Music Theatre’s production, which opened Nov. 22, is a true holiday gift — a thrilling night of musical theater.

Few musicals equal Les Miz in blending a strong storyline, a soaring musical score and a compelling cast of characters. No wonder the musical’s return to Broadway in March is being so eagerly anticipated by fans. An astonishing 65 million people worldwide have already seen a stage production of Les Miz, and millions more have seen the film version starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway.

Set in 19th-century France during a time of revolution, the story is based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. It follows the journey of Jean Valjean, a paroled convict who served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon his release, Valjean is rejected by all except a kind clergyman. The clergyman’s singular kindness makes such a strong impression on Valjean that he is transformed. He vows to spend his life correcting injustice. 

He has his work cut out for him, as there is injustice aplenty in Les Miserables. The young mother Fantine has been abandoned by her lover and must work to pay another family to care for her daughter. Then she’s fired by a factory manager after spurning his sexual advances. On her deathbed, Fantine pours out her heart to Valjean, who has by now become the successful owner of the factory in which she toiled. She fears for her daughter’s future, and Valjean vows to find and raise the girl.

But hot on Valjean’s heels is the police officer Javert, who will spend the rest of his life attempting to put Valjean back behind bars. 

Also part of the plot is a group of young men who vow to liberate Paris from what they see as a corrupt government. Their stirring commitment to freedom is brilliantly realized under director Marie Rhode’s direction. The young fighters literally create a barricade before the audience’s eyes as they deliver a rousing rendition of the anthemic “The People’s Song.” 

Rhode deserves credit for taking Les Miserables to a personal level. Her production depends more on character development than on splashy scenery. She dresses her cast in bland, sand-colored outfits. As the cast sings its way through the opening number “At the End of the Day,” some actors don military uniforms while others put on prison outfits. This makes for a seamless transition to the scene in which Javert first confronts Valjean in the prison yard. 

The cast is uniformly superb, led by Luke Grooms as the escaped convict Jean Valjean, and Andrew Varela as his pursuer Javert. A polished, operatic tenor, Grooms easily masters the challenging score. He is a big man whose physical presence matches his importance to the story. He can lead the production numbers with his booming voice, but he can also sing sweetly and tenderly when offering a prayer.

Equally impressive is Varela. His strong baritone lends Javert his authority. Varela’s every movement is spot-on as well, probably due to his prior engagement as Valjean in Broadway’s Les Miz. He’s also played Javert before — in the 25th-anniversary tour of Les Miz.

Despite her hideous, Goldilocks-style blond wig, Susan Spencer as Fantine does a fine job of delivering the musical’s best-known song, “I Dreamed a Dream.” Melissa Fife shows off a spectacular voice as Eponine. Her unrequited love for the dashing Marius (played by a very good-looking Kevin Massey) is given more prominence than usual in this production. This makes her plight, as well as her death scene in Marius’ arms, even more compelling.

Eponine’s parents, the Thenardiers, do their part to lighten the proceedings. These bawdy, crude and money-grubbing innkeepers are played to the hilt by Eric Mahlum and Rhonda Rae Busch. They give “Master of the House” all the gusto it requires.

Cabot Theatre’s intimacy is its most charming feature, but its small stage is not equipped to handle the set demands for Les Miz. Rhode was able to dodge this problem when directing her former Skylight blockbuster Sound of Music. She never attempted to duplicate the Alps, for instance.

But in Les Miz, once the massive barricade appears, it never really goes away. Even the clever lighting can’t compensate during scenes that contain only one or a few characters.

This is a slight drawback to an otherwise exceptional show that will create memories that linger throughout the holiday season.

On stage

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Les Miserables continues in the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre, 158 N. Broadway, through Dec. 29. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or go to www.skylightmusictheatre.org.