ORLANDO — Ah, the life of Dorothy. This is one young girl who really struggles with soaring dreams and ambitions of living someplace much bigger, much more grand, even though her close-knit family is all around her. Then again, there’s a bit of squabbling going on in the family, and as if that wasn’t enough, there’s that terrible storm coming …
Um … wait, hold it. Haven’t we heard this one before?
If you’re thinking “The Wizard of Oz,” you win whatever door prize I have left in my back closet (private message me later to see if I have anything left).
But hold it, don’t jump to conclusions. Dorothy is not living on the empty plains of rural Kansas, but in San Juan, which is about to get slammed by Hurricane Maria — a storm, as we know, that knocked power out of the entire island for months last September, causing untold misery there.
But this particular hurricane has the same impact on our young Puerto Rico Dorothy as, well, it did with you know who. And she ends up in this magical place where … the Scarecrow knows some eye-popping dance moves, the Tin Man sings with a stunning degree of heart and soul, and the Wicked Witch shows up in a tight leather dress and long black boots and a really feisty snarl in her eyes. Oh, and Dorothy gets the prize of some truly funky glitter sneakers after she lands on and crushes the Wicked Witch’s badazz brother. Oh, one more thing — Toto too!
If you’re been to the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival before, you know a show like this one is par pour le cours — an hour-long musical that tosses together songs, outstanding dance moves, an endless supply of humor and one liners, and a taste of social commentary here and there. Welcome to “El Wiz,” a musical that merges the Hollywood classic “The Wizard Of Oz” with the ripped-from-the-headlines saga of Puerto Rico’s unbelievable hardship after Hurricane Maria devastated the island’s power grid.
This large scale production, featuring a cast of 25 actors, singers, and dancers, was written and directed by local theater veteran Paul Castaneda, with songs and musical production by Juan Cantu and choreography by Sterling Lovett. You can tell everyone involved had mega-big levels of fun with this one, which is suitably in the spacious Margeson Theater at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center in Loch Haven Park. For Fringe veterans, this is ideally what you come to Fringe for; for Fringe virgins, this is the ideal intro.
Stephen Lima plays Tio Enrique, sort of our unofficial narrator, and he introduces us to Dorothy (played by Crystal Lizardo) as she copes with dreams and ambitions of a bigger life than the island seems to be offering. Well, guess what: courtesy of the storm named Maria, she sure gets it, landing in a magical universe where she gets to wear those jazzy sneakers — kind of like what you’d expect to see on a drag queen waitress at Hamburger Mary’s — and where she gets plenty of opportunity to engage in some astonishing dance moves. It’s even a place where the Wicked Witch, rather than having flying monkeys beside her, arrives with some slender witches in similarly tight outfits and sky-high black heels. I left wondering if I’d ever view the old Oz in the same way again.
In-between reminders of how much the island of Puerto Rico endured, plenty of pot-shots at a certain president we all know, and the appreciation of some soaring vocal talent, it’s hard not to marvel at this ensemble — and in particular Lizardo as the brash Dorothy, Desiree Montes as the passionate Mami Esperanza, and Leesa Castaneda, who burns the roof down as one super-fine Wicked Witch.
Fun stuff, all around. And as Lima noted during the show, I wonder if Paul Castaneda’s next send-up will be “Hamilton” ….
“El Wiz” is being performed at Orlando Fringe at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center. Tickets are $12, and you need to buy a Fringe button ($10) first to get in to the shows. “El Wiz” runs for one hour and upcoming shows are on Monday, May 21 at 8:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 26th at 2:15 p.m.; and Sunday, May 27th at 6:45 p.m.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..