A perennial favorite with children around the world, the Oz stories of L. Frank Baum have launched countless theatrical spin-offs. Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater of Holmdel is the latest group to cash in on the books’ popularity, with a kid-friendly production, “The Lost Princess of Oz,” which received its premiere last weekend at Monmouth University’s Pollak Theatre.
Combining frolicsome dances choreographed by Gabriel Chajnik with a spoken text by Shannon Hill, “The Lost Princess of Oz” features the popular country-rock duo Williams Honor (Gordon Brown and Reagan Richards) in major roles. Jason Tramm directs a six-member musical ensemble performing a composite score by Chris Becker.
Families will surely welcome this tuneful addition to the Oz franchise.
Brown and Richards are the show’s natural stars even when they aren’t playing guitar and singing, although they must defend themselves from scene-stealers. Children wearing adorable costumes threaten to grab the spotlight, and so does a fluffy Persian cat named Himmie, who is hoisted onto the stage, where he ignores affronts to his dignity.
Seated at an old-fashioned typewriter off to the side, Brown introduces himself as the author of the Oz tales. We find the writer struggling to satisfy his fans, who demand that he invent new adventures for his heroine, Dorothy Gale. On the opposite side of the stage, Richards appears tricked out in yellow feathers and glittering platform shoes. She portrays the talking hen Billina, a character from Baum’s 1907 storybook “Ozma of Oz.” Clucking and wise-cracking, this Billina is an endless source of chicken jokes (she’s “poultry in motion”) and her banter with Brown frames and comments upon the action.
Otherwise, like its literary sources, “The Lost Princess of Oz” has a tendency to ramble. From Kansas, where Dorothy experiences a premonitory nightmare and dances a hoedown with her relatives, we follow her to the decks of an ocean liner. Here the passengers grow seasick dancing to the jaunty strains of 19th century composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk.
Dorothy, played with grave astonishment by Alina Xiao, is then washed overboard along with another chicken named Billina, this one smartly danced by Lindsay Jorgensen. A Brechtian alienation effect — dividing the role of Billina between an actor and a dancer — will bother no one in this world of extravagant make-believe.
Coming safely ashore in Oz, Dorothy discovers that she must locate the vanished Princess Ozma and recover certain pilfered items. In order to delay the inevitable happy ending, Dorothy meets a host of characters from a Frogman (De’Shon Parkman) to a Patchwork Girl (Olivia Miranda), not to mention swans, finches, loons and an irresistible parade of kiddies carrying giant, frosted cupcakes.
Mario Rizzi’s tap number is among the dancing highlights in Act II, choreographed by Andrew Black, along with two clingy, wrap-around duets choreographed by Chajnik. Tiny Ava Suarez delivers an explosive performance as the evil shoemaker Ugu, which is all the more delightful for being unexpected. Best of all, however, are the moments when Richards drops her corny chicken routine to sing soulful ballads such as “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “All Your Heart,” or joins Brown in the rousing “Can’t Wait 2 B Ashamed.”
An elaborate production, “The Lost Princess of Oz” employs digital scenery splashed across white set pieces. We see storm clouds flash lightning, and ocean waves roll. Fireworks explode when Ugu is transformed into a mechanical bird.
These effects are impressive, but they don’t make the magic. “The Lost Princess of Oz” reminds us that no technology ever invented can compete with a master storyteller’s imagination.
Remaining performances of “The Lost Princess of Oz” take place Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m., Aug. 27 at 2 p.m., and Aug. 28 at 2 and 7 p.m. at The Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University in West Long Branch; visit axcbt.org.
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