A young misfit travels afar searching for home and finds her gaggle in a land filled with drag queens, witty humor, and unabashed individuality. No, this is not the storied queer pilgrimage to San Francisco. This is the A.C.T.’s The Wizard of Oz, a new adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel featuring music from the MGM film.
Tony-nominated director/choreographer Sam Pinkleton turns the classic tale’s queer undertones into overt statements through a delightful heaping of camp. Look no further than Dorothy’s (Chanel Tilghman) chosen family: A hot pink Toto akin to the Taco Bell chihuahua, a Scarecrow (Danny Scheie) looking to get stuffed, a Tin Man (Darryl V. Jones) dressed in leather taken straight from the SF Eagle’s coat check and a Lion (Cathleen Riddley) who epitomizes queer anxiety. Together they learn to lift each other up and find community among their chosen family.
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No Tea, No Shade
(l-r) Chanel Tilghman and Ada Westfall in A.C.T.’s ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Photo by Kevin Berne
Telling a story made famous by the 1939 MGM film starring Judy Garland can be confining because there is a cult fan base to answer to. But Pinkleton successfully upends the expectations of a classic musical production (still featuring music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburn) by paying homage to the queer community built around this piece of art. That homage starts with the audience’s inclusion in the extravaganza.
Singing along is encouraged with cue cards offering prompts during climactic scenes. And the yellow brick road only manifests with the audience’s helping hand (make sure to hold onto that yellow napkin stuffed in the playbill). It’s a clear indication that Dorothy’s determination to understand what home means to her is a universal story that we hold a part of through our shared experiences as a queer community.
Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an Order of queer and trans nuns in the Bay Area, cameos as the Mayor of Munchkinland. Cheers erupt and then crescendo as she decrees that the Wicked Witch of the East is dead. It’s difficult not to associate those cheers directly with Roma and her recent triumph alongside her sisters. The Los Angeles Dodgers had initially revoked their invitation to award the Sisters the Community Hero Award during the team’s LA Pride Night due to Florida senator Marc Rubio’s hissy fit and a letter from the Catholic League. However, after an outcry from queer folks, advocacy from organizers, and pressure from state legislators, the LA Dodgers reinvited the Sisters to receive the award. To the audience, The Wizard of Oz is now also a moment to celebrate our queer victories in the face of rising homophobia throughout the country.
Let’s Have a Moment
(l-r) Beth Wilmurt, Darryl V. Jones, Chanel Tilghman, El Beh, Cathleen Riddley, and Danny Scheie in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Photo by Kevin Berle
Who knew that even tornadoes were queer? An ensemble member dripping in rainbow streamers and glitter barrels throughout the stage, catalyzing the wondrous transition from grey-scaled Kansas to technicolor Oz. During the tornado, David Zinn’s scenic design coalesces in fits and snatches into a visual feast. A Fisher-Price ship and its rainbow sail rock onto the center of the stage, marking the start of a transformational odyssey. A Twister mat cheekily waves in the air, much like the Pride flag, a proud fixture on Castro Street. Pillars covered in artwork made by Bay Area youth depicting what home means to them flank Munchkinland on both sides of the stage. Altogether, the drawings form a collage reminding audience members that home is never too far away.
The Last Word
The Wizard of Oz centers queer joy and highlights how abundant it can be through community building. The click of Dorothy’s heels ushers in the ensemble to read out loud the audience’s responses to a prompt posted in the lobby: “to me home is…”
Queer havens throughout the Bay Area, like the Castro Theatre and Oasis, comprised the bulk of the list at the performance I attended. The ensemble finishes, and the audience lets out a collective “mmm,” acknowledging that once they leave Oz, there is a hard-earned community outside to cherish, nourish and fight for.
The Wizard of Oz plays at San Francisco’s A.C.T. through June 25.