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NDM Productions makes a stellar first impression with “Wizard of Oz”

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Olivia Ercolano and Zachary Dennis pose for a selfie before opening night of NDM Productions “Wizard of Oz,” which Dennis also directed. Courtesy photo

Great Falls if you love live theater, go to Great Falls High and introduce yourselves to NDM Productions. Because after seeing their first show, I can say that they’re sure to be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

With “Wizard of Oz” I found lot to like, and quite a bit that could be improved upon as well. For the most part, though, the performance came off as polished, professional and powerful.

The lead actors — Olivia Ercolano as Dorothy Gale, Zachary Dennis as the Tin Man, Sarah Raines as the Cowardly Lion and Lindsay Joliff as the Scarecrow — each gave breakout performances in which they displayed their strengths as vocalists, physical actors and ensemble experts.

Ercolano played Dorothy with great enthusiasm and innocence. When she landed Somewhere Over the Rainbow, you felt like you were there with her.

Aubrey Rearden plays a fun, over-the-top version of the Wicked Witch of the West, as well, contrasted nicely by the sexy, modernized feel of Glenda the Good Witch by Heather Dayton. Even the supporting roles filled by Joel Corda as the Wizard, Rory Schulte as the Emerald City Gatekeeper, Brian Logsdon as Uncle Henry and Amy Buffington as Auntie Em each brought something lively, unique and interesting. 

The musicianship put forth by Steve Olson and the pit orchestra deserve praise as well. To play  challenging music nonstop for upward of two hours takes a lot of practice and skill.

The props, set work and the use/construction of Yellow Brick Road worked well for the most part and while they were not highlights of the show, did not detract from it, either.

Heather Dayton and Sarah Raines pose together before opening night of NDM Productions' "Wizard of Oz."
Heather Dayton and Sarah Raines pose together before opening night of NDM Productions’ “Wizard of Oz.”

The same goes for the lighting work. There were a few times where a spotlight could have alleviated some confusion on stage regarding where the audience should be looking when the stage was mostly dark even as the leads performed their lines, but for the most part the lighting magic worked well.

Some of my favorite scenes included Joliff’s breezy take on Scarecrow’s “If I Only Had a Brain,” and the black-lit group dance during “The Jitterbug,”led by Aly Nierzwicki. The scene, as many Oz fans know, was deleted from the movie but is almost always included in the stage performance.

In relation to that dance routine, I also particularly enjoyed Zach’s tap dancing tin man. And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fun comedic relief from Raines’ Cowardly Lion. The inclusion of a “Lion King” reference had the house especially chuckling.

Beyond her singing, Joliff again proves why she’s among the very best actresses Great Falls has to offer. She made the Scarecrow hers entirely and you couldn’t help but smile while watching her go to work.

The same could be said about Raines’ Cowardly Lion. She touched on exactly what it means to want courage but not actually have any.

And sure, traditionalists might find it strange to see a female actor play what has typically been a masculine role.

However, I find it a fascinating paradigm shift that raises interesting ideas about gender roles and expectations and how one does not necessarily have to align with the other.

As for Sarah’s role, as usual she sings with gusto, ease and grace.

I felt like this was a bit of an easy role for her, however, especially given the fact that up until the last leg of the rehearsal process she was supposed to be one of the apple trees. It was a fun and dynamic performance nonetheless, however and somewhat rare to see Sarah get to play the funnyman.

But while it did not surprise me that Sarah would do well as the Lion, Dayton’s take on Glenda may have surprised me the most.

Not having known anything about her, seeing her give such a strong, fun performance made it a joy to watch. With her modern costume, voice inflections and physical acting, I half expected to see her pull out a cell phone or iPad and start Tweeting away about seeing Dorothy’s house fall on the Wicked Witch of the East.

I also loved the sass the three ladies brought to the apple trees, which sounds strange at first but when you watch how it happens you’ll see what I mean. Their costumes also might have been some of my favorites of the show, which is saying something because there were many wonderful costumes from start to finish. These aren’t your mother’s apple trees, unless your mother was a fan of the show Desperate Housewives.

And indeed one could feast upon an array of visual and aural excellence. A few issues need to be looked into, as well, however.

NDM Wizard 1
The cast of “Wizard of Oz” receive a standing ovation at the Great Falls High auditorium. Photo courtesy of NDM Productions

The first issue was with the sound. Mostly the level of the orchestra versus the singers.Having the leads mic’ed up helped greatly, but it didn’t solve everything. At times there would be a big group of singers, including the leads and the ensemble cast, who would sing or speak or a combination, and I could not hear them from my spot at the very middle of the venue.

Perhaps having fewer orchestra musicians may have made the singers easier to hear. Don’t take that to mean that I wanted less music in the show. I just wanted to hear a bit more of it.

Doing orchestral music for a live theater show is hard work, often for very little pay. The fact that many of the woodwind musicians were doubling, or tripling, meant that they weren’t as familiar with the instruments many of the musicians were playing. Doubling or tripling is a term that means a musician is performing an instrument that he or she has not spent as much time with as other instruments.

Perhaps by using a smaller group of instrumentalists, who in turn could perhaps get paid more, may have improved the musical issues. The score determines the number of musicians needed, but maybe a workaround could have been reached somehow.

I will say that the pit musicians are just as important to the play as any of the actors, singers and dancers. But, by at times drowning out the ensemble singers I feel does a disservice to the show as a whole.

I want to hear the instrumentalists play the socks off the classic Oz songs. I just also would have loved to fully hear the singers perform their parts, as well.

Along those same lines, the pitch control on several of the songs could have been tightened up a bit.  In particular, I found myself grimacing during the “March of the Winkies” chant.  Which, instead of attempting to explain it in words, should sound like this:

The pitch was off and not quite everyone was playing at the same time. It was decent but could have been better.

And as I mentioned at the top that I thought Rearden did a fantastic job at playing the Wicked Witch, I felt that she took it too over the top as Miss Almira Gulch.

I loved how she peddled on her bike on stage and made her presence known immediately, but her mannerisms and tone of voice seemed to edge on overacting. .

Some other issues include when, before the introduction of Scarecrow, for whatever reason there was a woman dressed in street clothes on stage adjusting a set piece while the lights were up and before the scene was over.

I also noticed a gap in logic that might seem small, but touches on a bigger complaint, as well.

When Dorothy meets Professor Marvel (who if you’re not familiar with the story is the same character as the Wizard) he asks Dorothy to close her eyes so he can “see” into her future. After she cloes her eyes, he reaches into her basket and finds a photo of her family.

The problem with that, however, is that Toto also happened to be sitting inside the basket. If Toto was anything like a real puppy, Professor Marvel likely would have had a sore finger or two after reaching for something that wasn’t his next to Dorothy’s guard dog.

The larger issue is the fact that Toto was not a real dog. I understand why they didn’t have a real dog, and it’s a valid reason to not have one. Let’s face it, when you’re putting on your very first theater show, you don’t have the time to train a dog to act on command. Perhaps they tried a real dog and found it didn’t work.

I get why you wouldn’t use a real dog, but we couldn’t help but feel a little let down by the fact that one of the more crucial characters in the story was being played by a stuffed animal.

A few other issues not relating to the performance that deserve to be mentioned include the fact that on Saturday I would have loved to see Ali Jo get up on stage before the show and give a few words about the show and the company. She was there behind stage and got on the microphone and asked people to please turn off their cell phones.

The last non-performance issue was the fact that the programs weren’t stapled. A small detail that likely came from the fact that the programs didn’t get finished until the very last minute. And, it’s not really that big of deal, but it would have felt more like a real program if the pages were stapled together.

Not every show is perfect, and while some parts needed improvement, the good outweighed the bad tenfold.

NDM Productions made a strong statement with this show and the momentum they’ve built with this should ripple through to their follow-up performance next March.

Like Dorothy Gale, Sheets and Dennis have discovered that there’s no place like home.

And, if you’re anything like me, you’re tickled that they’ve made their way back to Great Falls to give our community another dynamic, independent theater company.

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