Peoria Players’ “The Wizard of Oz” enchants with a magical cast

As young children, we participate in all sorts of pastimes – catching lightning bugs in jars, feeding the neighbor’s dog things it shouldn’t eat through the fence and riding our bikes up and down the driveway because our moms wouldn’t let us go any further.

But my favorite childhood memory by far is acting out “The Wizard of Oz” in its entirety.  Sure, I did the same thing for “Pocahontas” and “Aladdin,” but somehow not having copper skin or an understanding pet tiger deflated a little of the joy.

Every weekend, my parents knew the routine. I would be occupying the entire living room for an undisclosed period of time, and if there were any interruptions, the video would need to be rewound so I could be sure to capture every piece of magical dialogue.

Needless to say, I have become quite the expert on all things Oz over the years and am therefore a critical connoisseur of any Oz memorabilia. So when I heard the Peoria Players Theater was doing a version of the classic, I knew I had to be there with a scrupulous eye.

I was fully prepared to be uber-critical. After all, how could a measly play ever live up to the magic that was the movie? Yet I found myself gasping and singing right along with the other esteemed critics in the audience (the 10-year-old girls).

To begin, the casting was what made the show, as almost every character nailed the onscreen versions.

Dorothy (played by Clare Zell) looked and sounded just like I always pictured I did, in her blue gingham dress and ruby slippers. Auntie Em and Uncle Henry were as cute as I always pictured and may have even had slightly more personality than in the movie. The Lion and Glinda were certainly believable, as was the all-powerful wizard. The Tin Man was probably the weakest character in my book, but who could blame him under all that latex paint.

By far, the two standout characters were the Wicked Witch (Julie Boesch) and the Scarecrow. Boesch was active in the theater scene in Chicago, and this additional experience shows as her humor and familiarity with the audience were soon apparent. The Scarecrow (played by Josh Hammond) was far and away my favorite character, both as a 10-year-old girl and entertainment reviewer.

I have always had a weird crush on the character, which makes sense given my past track record of guys with an unfortunate lack of brains. Hammond did an amazing job and 100 percent nailed the Scarecrow’s mannerisms, facial expressions and voice. However, this huge amount of talent is less surprising when you learn that he is a recent Bradley graduate.

The set and costume design were impressive and practical. The set was a revolving one in the center of the stage and was quite impressive.

The choreography and colorfulness of the Munchkins (who were not actual little people, just children) could not have been better, and I was certainly impressed with the dedication of such young, budding actors and actresses.

The storyline followed the original pretty well except for one main deviation. The “lost Jitterbug” scene was included, which involved costumed “Jitterbugs” dancing around the stage “biting” the four comrades, causing them to dance uncontrollably. This scene, along with the song, was so much fun to watch and shows that the director, Mary Ellen Ulrich, really did her research.

The only downside that slightly tainted the magic that was this show is the addition of the DVD projector onto the ceiling to show things like the tornado and the Wizard of Oz. This could have been a really unique addition, and a great way to show some of the elements that would be hard to show on stage.

However, it was overused and added a corny element (especially with the black letters announcing DVD input along the bottom) to what would otherwise be a sophisticated production.

To be honest, until this weekend I had almost forgotten what it was like to feel that sense of magic that you feel when watching a show based in the land of Oz. No matter how many vampire stories or Harry Potter movies come out in the future, there is no place that will provide that classic taste of magic – no place like Oz.