Fantasies — Fanciful and Mundane

People do a lot of dreaming, and their emotions are often tied up in those dreams. That’s the case with two very different stage productions currently available at local theaters.

Jan 27, 2016 at 11:57 am
click to enlarge Kimberly Gelbwasser and Greg Bossler in Chapter Two
Kimberly Gelbwasser and Greg Bossler in Chapter Two

People do a lot of dreaming, and their emotions are often tied up in those dreams. That’s the case with two very different stage productions currently available at local theaters. The more excessive of these is The Carnegie’s presentation of The Wizard of Oz. Yes, it’s a stage rendition of Dorothy’s 1939 cinematic dream of Oz, with every bit of music you will recall — plus a number you won’t (it includes “The Jitterbug,” deleted from the film) — performed lushly by the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra.

This is a rather ambitious undertaking for The Carnegie, given the rather small stage: it’s accommodating 14 musicians and KSO conductor J. R. Cassidy as well as this expansive, highly visual story. But it’s all been managed with a whopping dose of creativity, especially the scenic design by Pam Kravetz. Her imagination knows no bounds, it seems, and I suspect it inspired some of director Matt Wilson’s zany choices as well as other design aspects of the show — such as the head of the “Great and Powerful Oz,” a large puppet made of cardboard boxes and paper cups, with moveable jaws and wiggling eyebrows. Or the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys — augmented by cardboard cut-outs on sticks waved up and down the aisles by young cast members.

There’s fun from start to finish: Toto is a wooden pull-toy operated charmingly by petite Olivia Bayer, a fifth-grader from the School for Creative and Performing Arts, using a stick; her interactions with Caroline Chisholm as strong-willed Dorothy are delightful.

Dorothy’s pals in her dream of Oz — loose-limbed Jack Manion (Scarecrow), staunch Tyler Kuhlman (Tin Woodman) and rambunctiously timid Sean P. Mette (Cowardly Lion) — are picture-perfect. Lesley Hitch, dolled up in green (no doubt inspired by Wicked and perhaps The Grinch) and an oversized hat, makes the Wicked Witch a whirlwind of cackling nastiness whenever she’s onstage. She even gets Cassidy and his musicians to don caps with bright red poppies for the sleep-inducing scene prior to the Emerald City.

A Saturday matinee I attended included a post-show costume contest for kids who came up on stage, including a miniature Tin Woodman and several Dorothys. A fine family outing, if a tad long at two and a half hours.

Chapter Two, Neil Simon’s 1977 play about a middle-aged widower who’s none too certain about starting a romantic relationship, is onstage at the Covedale. There are just four characters: George Schneider (Greg Bossler), his brother Leo (Steve Milo) who fixes him up with a sweet divorcée, actress Jennie Malone (Kimberly Gelbwasser), and Jennie’s neurotic friend Faye Medwick (Mindy Heithaus).

Neither George nor Jennie is eager to get together. He’s just 42 and still grieving over his wife’s death; well-adjusted, good-natured Jennie, 32, is glad to be rid of a dull marriage that didn’t work. Nevertheless, a series of amusing phone conversations via landlines between their New York City apartments (comfortably designed by Brett Bowling) lead to a whirlwind courtship and a surprising decision to marry right away. The chemistry between Bossler and Gelbwasser is not quite convincing, but she is so appealing — if ridiculously tolerant of George’s second thoughts, as required by the script — that it’s a bit of a challenge not to think she might have done better.

George still has photos of his late wife throughout his apartment, so their prospects for happiness seem dubious. But Jennie persists despite things running seriously aground in the second act after their honeymoon, seeking to preserve “one of the most beautiful marriages that was ever in trouble.” The tension as they work through their issues is relieved by a comic subplot regarding an ill-conceived affair between amorous George and desperate Faye; Heithaus steals the scene of their interrupted interlude as she wrestles with an uncooperative bed sheet to cover her nakedness.

In his director’s note, Ed Cohen disputes Simon’s reputation as a joke writer, arguing that he portrays “real people and real relationships.” That’s true in Chapter Two, and Cohen brings out the best between these characters. They feel like multi-dimensional people you might meet. You’re never very far from a humorous moment in this show, but the emotion that Simon creates feels genuine.

THE WIZARD OF OZ, presented by The Carnegie in Covington, will be onstage through Jan. 31. CHAPTER TWO, presented by Cincinnati Landmark Productions at the Covedale Center, continues through Feb. 14.