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LA Theater Review

Say Goodbye, Toto

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Amy Heidish's alternate expedition to find L. Frank Baum's Emerald City eliminates the need for a dog whisperer—if only Dorothy would listen to her trusty canine companion. Heidish has cleverly re-imagined The Wizard of Oz from Toto's viewpoint and, if his naively misdirected mistress would stop interrupting their interspecies love affair to join forces with wandering strangers, she might notice that her devoted pooch possesses an ability to strategize. It's obviously frustrating for poor Toto (so sweetly and affectively played by Joseph Porter that you want to give him a good scratch behind the ears) that Dorothy (a suitably wide-eyed Renee Scott) won't heed his warnings, particularly when she further compounds the situation with comments such as, "Toto, you're acting like Uncle Henry after he's gotten into the cooking sherry."

Heidish has great fun with the premise, and director Jamie Virostko is lucky to have such willing participants on this fresh new trek down that well-trod Yellow Brick Road. Everything and everybody are along for the ride, from flying monkeys to scene-changing Munchkins (Anna Quirino Miranda and Jordana Oberman) to poppies sure to get the travelers high, but here Dorothy's classic companions are three spell-challenged and agenda-heavy brothers who plot to kill off Toto to keep the kid from thinking about Kansas. Although, as the Lion, Andres Ramacho's Keanu Reeves impersonation wears thin fast, Grant Mahnken makes a quixotic transformation as the Tin Man, and the seemingly boneless Mike Fallon is especially memorable as the ever-teetering Scarecrow.

Still this production is a work in progress. Each leg of the journey to Oz and later the quest to melt the Wicked Witch ("I can't kill anyone," Dorothy pleads, "I'm only 16 and they haven't taught us that yet in school") requires another repetitious mood-breaking run offstage through the audience exits, leaving behind Miranda and Oberman to hop around in transition lighting, oddly adding huge paper flowers to cubes. More-inventive staging or the aid of a choreographer to match Heidish's imaginative rethinking is in order, and, above all, the creators should realize the potential here is as children's theater. Except for a few lines sure to go over the kiddies' heads (like "Come on, Toto, grow a pair"), what becomes a tad one-joke for adults could keep the little ones entertained on Saturday afternoons for a long time to come.  

Presented by the Ark Theatre Company and Playwrights 6 at the Hayworth, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. July 24–Sept. 19. Thu.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.
(323) 969-1707. www.arktheatre.org.

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