Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Sometimes, it’s worth curbing an impulse and deferring to instincts. Alana Hibbert, currently in performing in The Wizard of Oz at the Young People’s Theatre, replied to my questions well before the show opened on April 7…but somehow I yielded to an intuition to hold off on writing this piece until after I saw her in the show. Good call!
Having seen her at the Stratford Festival in a marathon Rogers-and-Hammerstein double-bill last year, I knew she could sing. (Just recalling her stirring rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” still evokes chills.) However, in this tight and playful adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, Ms Hibbert shows that vocal prowess is just one of her many talents. In this production, she sings, she dances, and she even accompanies the band with her recorder. And she does all of it precisely and particularly, in an inventive production that injects the unexpected into the familiar.
Ms Hibbert plays Auntie Em in Kansas and the titular Wizard in Oz (yes, that’s right – the wizard behind the curtain is a woman in this production!). Both are roles almost as iconic as that of Dorothy, and she finds this a source of pleasure. “It’s really a treat to take on some of these more familiar roles,” she muses. “I have a personal history with Ragtime, The Sound of Music, Carousel, and now The Wizard of Oz that goes back to when I was a kid, so it’s fun to re-explore who these characters are, looking at them through an adult’s eyes.” She prepares by trying to make the character her own, starting with the acknowledgment that some incredible women (and men, in the case of the Wizard) have played these parts before her. She puts that firmly out of her mind once rehearsals start. At this point, she selects an experience or feeling that uniquely connects her to the character: “Once I have a way in, I can continue to explore who I am as the character.”
Ms Hibbert recognizes that, as a younger woman of colour, she is physically different from how both the Wizard and Auntie Em are traditionally depicted — a distinction that is ultimately “very freeing.” It has led to comfort in “figuring out who these characters [are] in the context of our own unique production of The Wizard of Oz, that our company built together!”
It’s not just in its casting that this production is unique. Allen Cole has arranged the familiar tunes in a catchy bluegrass style – and at different points, actors (even the Wicked Witch) pick up an instrument to accompany the 3-piece band. It’s clear from start to finish that every company member is having fun. They often play off the audience’s reactions to elements that have been modified to surprising effect. Judging by the buzz I saw and overheard after the show, Ms Hibbert was accurate in her prediction that “young audiences will be talking about the joy they experienced watching the show. Our production does not take itself too seriously, but maintains a huge and genuine heart at its centre.”
The familiar plot, combined with highly singable songs, inspire an irrepressible urge to sing along . . . in both children and adults alike. On the night I went with my family, The Cowardly Lion’s lament for courage became a sympathetic chorus, as did a rousing “Ding, Dong, the Wicked Witch is Dead”, whose first 2 verses a boy seated behind us loudly sang. And Toto, who is here played by a human rather than canine actor, was greeted with lively barks from one little boy whenever he came on stage–a sympathetic response which only added to the friendly, communal experience. And as if this wasn’t surprise enough, who could predict that the Wicked Witch would prove a willing – and an accomplished – drummer? “It is really very kooky and funny,” Ms Hibbert laughs. “The costume and set design are fantastic as well.”
So Ms Hibbert can now check The Wizard of Oz off on her long list of iconic musicals . . .though her childhood favorite, Annie, has as yet eluded her . . . “unless you count in my childhood living room,” she winks, warming to the memory. “My younger sister and I would put on the record (“Hard Knock Life” was our favourite), and ask my mom to give us chores to do–and pretend to be orphans!”
Never say never. It’s still early days in a career that’s already prolific. If anyone can play any one of the roles in Annie and make it her own, it’s Ms Hibbert. She’ll do it her way. And it will be unforgettable.
Alana Hibbert’s Playlist–“Usually when I hear a song I like, part of what I like is the possibility of what I might do with it. That being said, there are some great songs that I don’t sing:”
News You Can Use
What: The Wizard of Oz based on the book by L. Frank Baum
Who: Audiences 5 years and up
When: On stage until May 15, 2016
Where: Young People’s Theatre, 165 front Street, Toronto, ON
FYI: YoungPeoplesTheatre.ca and 416.862.2222
Study Guide for parents and educators
© 2016 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya