Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus
Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus

By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

Even if you’re a longtime, big-time fan of “The Wizard of Oz,” I’ll bet you never thought you’d actually set foot on the Yellow Brick Road itself, surrounded by tall trees in the midst of a forest. Why, it’s the stuff of dreams and pure fantasy, right?

Perhaps, but this is just the kind of thing that Serenbe Playhouse, a bit south of Atlanta, specializes in with their unique outdoor settings. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” a world premiere adaptation by Rachel Teagle of the L. Frank Baum 1900 story, is running through Aug. 3 on weekends. It is directed by Brian Clowdus, the founder and artistic director of the theatre at Serenbe.

I think it’s safe to say that the Playhouse is also paying homage to the 75th anniversary of the classic 1939 film; but even though there’s a soundtrack, you won’t be hearing the familiar songs. The story, however, is intact, with a few delightful modifications.

All the beloved characters are here: Dorothy (Skylar Nicholson, a 15-year-old charmer with more talent than the law should allow); the Scarecrow, extremely earnest and convinced he has no brain (Will Skelton); the Lion, who’s comically lacking in courage (Lauren Chamblin); and the Tin Man, who is tall, gentle, and kind but somehow has decided he has no heart (Alex Towers). These four performers are enchanting and endearing, individually and as a group. You root for them.

You also realize that most of our human limitations are self-imposed. “Oz” may be a “children’s story,” but its power and universality are staring you in the face—if you’re looking.

And Toto, too! (That sounds oddly familiar.) Dorothy’s little dog (in real life Ms. Nicholson’s) makes nary a false step or bark.
Brittany Ellis plays Galinda and other good witches, one of whom has a mild Scarlett O’Hara obsession (playwright Teagle has some fun with her artistic license).

Allie Southwood plays the Wicked Witch with appropriate menace; the Witch observes that although Dorothy seems “small and meek,” she caused a house to fall on the Wicked Witch’s sister! Plus there’s the matter of those ruby slippers…

Robert Lee Hindsman plays the Wizard and the Flying Monkey King; he is aided, as are the witches, by puppets created by Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts.

That’s the thing about director Clowdus: He gets the best assistance and the best actors available. I discovered this last summer at Serenbe’s “Hair,” which may have been the year’s single most outstanding show, by any theatre, in Atlanta.

“Hair” was performed at night; if you have kids and are worried about keeping them up late to trek to Serenbe for “Oz,” surprise: “The Wonderful Wizard” is performed in daytime. Check the theatre’s website for times and directions.

“Oz” is performed without an intermission in little more than an hour. The show has charm, imaginative stagecraft and costumes, and real pathos. You’re sitting right by the yellow brick road. “And here were forests ancient as the hills, enfolding sunny spots of greenery.” That’s from Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” That’s sort of the feeling I got at Serenbe’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

For more information, visit serenbeplayhouse.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.