The Pittsburgh CLO opened its seventy-fifth anniversary season with their production of “The Wizard of Oz” at Heinz Field this week.
Faced with the possibility of a second canceled season at the Benedum due to pandemic restrictions, the CLO reached out to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The organization generously donated the use of Heinz Field. Using the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s mobile stage, the possibility of a limited anniversary season outdoors became a practical reality.
The afternoon before opening night, it was worrisome that Mother Nature might take a more active role in the production beyond the tornado in Dorothy’s dream. Ticket holder’s fears were mounting that the first performance might have to be canceled due to heavy rain and lightning predictions for the region. Fortunately, the weather cooperated, and the first performance began a little after 9 p.m.
I’m not going to spend a great deal of time on the plot. Almost everyone knows the story of the children’s fantasy novel, the “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by Frank L Baum. It was first published in 1900 and brought to the big screen in 1939 by MGM as their now-classic motion picture “Wizard of Oz.” The classic designation is due in part to the immense talent of Judy Garland and her co-stars Burt Lahr, Ray Bolger, and Jack Haley and the later regular airings of the film on the new medium of television.
For this, their sixth production of “The Wizard of Oz,” the CLO has chosen the 1987 Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation, which is closely based on the film’s script.
One of the strengths of the CLO is the depth of the alumni talent bench, along with a myriad of connections to national professional-level talent. These creative and design pools contribute significantly to the success of this CLO production of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Moving from the CLO’s current home indoors at the Benedum Center, with all of its in-place tools and capabilities for creating theater magic to an outdoor football stadium provides a unique set of challenges and compromises. One of the most obvious being the substitution of a large video screen for traditional sets and scenery. The creative team led by Director Glenn Casale has met these challenges head-on, creating a show that exceeds expectations.
The pacing of the show drags a bit in the opening scenes. These scenes set up the Kansas characters before Dorothy’s nightmare dream, where a tornado sweeps up her and her dog Toto, depositing them “somewhere over the rainbow.”
Jessica Grove as Dorothy – CLO photo by Matt Polk
Things pick up when Dorothy realizes she is no longer in Kansas. Once in Oz, free of the drama at the family homestead, I found myself immediately being drawn into the story. This is a large part due to Dan DeLucas’ compelling performance as the kindly Scarecrow, the first of a band of soon-to-be friends we meet.
Dan DeLuca as Scarecrow, Evan Ruggiero as Tin Man and Dorothy (Jessica Grove) CLO Photo by May Polk
The scenes where the Scarecrow, Tin Man (Evan Riggerio), and Lion (Drew Leigh Williams) reveal their inner feelings of inadequacy to Dorothy carry warmth and compassion. Elsewhere in the musical, these emotions seem more forced. Eventually, the truth of the Wizard (played by a traditionally good Jeffery Howell) is revealed. All is put right as the four are made to realize their flaws are really their inherent strengths.
Dan DeLuca as Scarecrow and Drew Leigh Williams as Lion – CLO Photo by Matt Polk
The myriad of backstage personnel, including Stage Managers and their assistants, deserve extra credit for keeping the show running smoothly while wrangling the large group of youth performers.
Lighting and Production Design by Andrew Giffin, Video Design by Joe Spinogatti, Costumes Designed by Haley Dee Tynes. CLO Photo by Matt Polk
Joe Spinogatti Video Design carries the weight of the entire scenic load with a bright Technicolor take on the Land of Oz. Some of the designs are childish in nature, but this is inherently a children’s book.
Jim Cunningham, the CLO’s Musical Director, once again fields a first-rate group of musicians to field an orchestra and Broadway show would be proud to have in their pit. They were spot on.
Recent Point Park Graduate, LaTrea Rembert, a standout as the Palace Guard
One final criticism I mention because it undoubtedly colors my opinion of the production. My wife and I had what should be “great” seats, the third row of socially distanced tables, just right of center on the playing field level. I would recommend sitting further back from the stage at a height that puts your eyes above the stage floor so you can see the dancers’ feet. The further back you sit will place the screens showing the performance (not the scenery screens) in your primary field of view. For me, every time the image changed on these screens, my eyes looked over to see what changed, which was a big distraction.
While I cannot speak to the sound quality throughout the audience area, the orchestra was perfect; however, the voices were so loud I left with a headache. Sadly, I probably missed the nuances of the many fine actors’ line deliveries due to the loudness.
I had a few moments to chat with CLO Executive Producer Mark Fleischer before the show started. He told me, “Our summer season represents one of the most unique partnerships in musical theatre.” We have “the CLO and the Steelers, two institutions, two communities, with a long history in Pittsburgh, working together” so Pittsburgh can enjoy live in-person theater this summer.
“The Wizard of Oz” was “chosen very deliberately,” said Fleischer. “It’s a show about finding your way home. We’re coming out of a period of isolation. We want to bring families, neighbors and the community together again. That’s our goal for the summer.”
Kudos to the CLO and Steelers for giving us Pittsburghers a chance to attend live in-person theater.
The CLO’s final production of the season, “A Broadway Musical Celebration,” runs July 21 to 24 at Heinz Field.