• ‘Land of Oz,’ SMHS Dance Company’s Original Production, Is A “Can’t Miss.”

    This production has been dancing around inside Bonnie Hanson’s head for the past two years, and it’s difficult to believe that even its creator ever envisioned something this spectacular when it finally strutted onto San Marino High School’s Neher Auditorium stage.

    Bold in its intention, dazzling in its presentation and confidently performed in its execution by 130 – count ‘em, one hundred and thirty – members of the SMHS Dance Department, ‘The Land of Oz’ is a landmark event, tantalizing the senses from innocent Dorothy’s (Juliet Bernstein) opening Kansas stroll to its rousing, off-your-feet finale – and all points in between.

    Rarely, if ever, has the local stage seen a production this ambitious with nary a spoken word throughout its approximate one hundred minute running time as brightly costumed participants take you through the familiar story of Dorothy, trying to get back home to Kansas after a tornado transports her into a dreamy otherworld.

    While Bernstein’s opening dance number is brilliant enough, that “tornado” will take your breath away as it grows in intensity in both audial volume and cast participation. Before you know it, our heroine meets the three familiar characters who will hopefully lead her two the promised land. Or at least Kansas.

    The Scarecrow (Natalie Silk), The Tin Man (Kristie Liu) and The Cowardly Lion (Juju Converse)  embrace and make each role their own, with dramatic interplay between the nightmarish haunts along the way (wait til you see the poppies) as well as the Silver People, Munchkins and, of course, the legendary Monkeys (Monkey Captain Hannah Poon shines especially bright here).

    My advice to those familiar with the iconic movie is to leave your predispositions at the door – familiar elements of the story might be hiding in plain sight.

    “I wanted this to be abstract,” said Hanson. “I wanted people to connect the dots.”

    The idea for ‘Oz’ came to Hanson during a production of ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’ at the Pasadena Civic Theatre a couple years back.

    “I’m not a ballet person, but I thought – ‘gosh, we have different levels of performers at the high school, we could put something together like this,’” Hanson said. “I’m near the end of my career here and it would be nice to do something new. Maybe I’ll challenge myself a little.”

    She turned to her two musical sons, Cory and Casey, and within a year the production was scored. Fans of seventies bands Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer will more than appreciate its synthesizer-laden tone – if any more reason to see the show is needed.

    Hanson designed the costumes herself – “a work in progress, I tried to costume as we went along,” she said, with the show just forty-eight hours away at the time – and handed over choreography duties to the student dancers themselves.

    “Every day we had a meeting to discuss what we wanted to do and off they went,” said the thirty-year veteran, who personally created the department three decades ago. “It has really been a great collaboration piece. It has a blend of different styles and in the end it’s a good mix. The girls have done a wonderful job taking on this project and bringing it to life.”

    And live, it does.

    The aforementioned pilgrims have plenty of support in Jaclyn Chu (Glenda the Good Witch of the South) and counterpart Maya Ho (The Wicked Witch of the West), who actually takes to the air in pursuit of Dorothy (see accompanying article).

    “Jaclyn is so sweet and Maya is so edgy,” Hanson gushed. “Their dynamic is one of the highlights of the performance.”

    Bernstein, Silk, Liu and Converse are strong throughout and Annie Schall – who plays the leader of the Silver People – gets “her perfect role,” in the words of one knowledgeable bystander.

    Adeptly scored by the Hanson Brothers (Bonnie’s sons, not the hockey thugs of film lore) ‘The Land of Oz’ works on every level. Trust me, you’ll be humming one tune or another all the way home.

    Nothing of this grand scale can be pulled off by a high school cast and crew without its, well, blemishes, but this one comes as close as possible.

    “This is a challenge,” Hanson noted. “There are a lot of technical adjustments we are making. The flying, the lighting, the staging. There is a lot going on.”

    And a lot going right. Hopefully, Hanson will stick around long enough to try to outdo even this affair. If not, one couldn’t imagine a better vehicle on which to exit.

    ‘The Land of Oz,’ runs November 22 and 23 in San Marino High School’s Neher Auditorium. Showtimes: Friday, November 22 at 6:00 p.m.; and Saturday, November 23 at 1:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. All seats are reserved.

    Tickets are available online at sanmarinohs.org/dance/landofoz, in the APO and at the box office before each presentation.

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