Lawrence Toppman

‘Journey to Oz:’ A love affair with language

The Wicked Witch of the West (Nicia Carla) and Glinda (Tiffany Bear) face off in “Journey to Oz” at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.
The Wicked Witch of the West (Nicia Carla) and Glinda (Tiffany Bear) face off in “Journey to Oz” at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. Donna Bise

Words painted on backdrops, words read to us with zest, words falling from the sky, words (and noises) streaming from the gleeful Children’s Theatre of Charlotte audience.

Books filling countless shelves, books that release cyclones when opened, books whose torn or trimmed pages can be turned into beards and lions’ manes and even a scruffy little black dog named Toto.

Christopher Parks’ “Journey to Oz” makes us fall in love again with the fantasy world created by L. Frank Baum in more than a dozen books over nearly 20 years. Yet it instills a deeper love for language itself. We are constantly reminded, as five vivid actors onstage read excerpts from Baum’s books and letters, that imagination begins with words.

Did I say five actors? That doesn’t take into account the multiple Dorothys, munchkins and residents of Oz who marched up to take part in the narrative. In fact, we all did – or were encouraged to – when we barked for Toto, whooshed for the twister, sang about the demise of the Witch of the West or cawed disgustedly at the hapless Scarecrow.

Writer-director Parks borrows his story mainly from the first book, the one transformed into the 1939 film that softened the narrative. (In the original, Dorothy’s life on the prairie seems harsh and lonely; her aunt and uncle have been wizened by rough weather and hard work.) Yet Parks doesn’t want to scare small kids, so Nicia Carla’s Wicked Witch is less horrifying; she’s even allowed a tear for her sister, which she quickly wipes away. (A question: If water harms her, could she cry herself to death?)

Tiffany Bear plays a genial Glinda, though her main tasks are warm-voiced narration and to subtlety coach audience participants: Unexpected answers yielded entertaining ad-libs at Friday’s school show. Chaz Pofahl, Dan Brunson and Tommy Foster play the goofy Scarecrow, stiff-jointed Tin Woodsman and tail-twisting Cowardly Lion, respectively, but they too spend much of their time as narrators and masters of ceremony.

That’s because Parks makes the whole theater a playroom. You can never tell when actors will appear or disappear, even among the audience members. If they have to pull off a stunt the stage won’t accommodate – say, the melting of the witch – they jokingly show us that everything’s an illusion: Carla pulls off her pointed hat, lowers it slowly to the stage and makes melting noises. The lone miscalculation is the projection of the wizard’s “scary” green visage, which resembles a malevolent Gumby.

Tom Burch’s fantastically adaptable set, an old-fashioned library that can become almost anything, has been decorated with Tim Parati’s paintings; those are blow-ups of W.W. Denslow’s 1900 illustrations for “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” and they have an antique charm. Jennifer Matthews’ costumes also suggest the turn of the last century.

Yet Parks subtly reminds us that some things never change or lose value, that writing from 115 years ago has the power to sweep us away to another world with the same vigor it did before Americans knew anything about cars or airplanes. In the beginning was the word – and in the end, the word still stands supreme.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Journey to Oz

When: Through March 6 at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m Sunday. Saturday shows are at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on the 20th, 11 a.m. on the 27th, and 3 p.m. on March 5.

Where: ImaginOn, 300 East Seventh St.

Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission.

Tickets: $12-$26.

Details: 704-973-2828 or ctcharlotte.org.

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