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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Flying Home: Waa-Mu 2013

Or: Through a Fractured Lookingglass.

In it’s long and successful history, the Waa-mu show has generally focused upon aspects of Northwestern life, its student creators penning both love-letter and elbow-poke satire at the ol’ alma mater. This year, the seeds of imagination are cast over wider ground, namely the fertile fields of Neverland, Wonderland, and Oz which despite their countless reincarnations still hold an enchantment for us.

The themes of graduation and uncertainty, Waa-mu’s bread and butter, have not entirely been left on the shelf. The story begins with seven boys in St. Ormond’s School for Boys (a prestigious London orphanage) in the 1900’s. This unlikely band of brothers (well stocked with tropes: the prankster (Carlyon), the intellectual (Wasserman) the Scot (Sorrows)...) has one more night together before they part ways the next day. Winston (Estus), youngest of the bunch and brother to the de facto leader Griff (Sherman) wants to read through his collection of stories one last time (the tome contains those most celebrated titles of Caroll, Berrie and Baum, but each story is missing its last pages. Guess what comes next.) While musing on the terror of growing up, Winston is called by etherial voices to enter the dormitory’s mirror and falls to the crossroads of the three wondrous kingdoms. His elder friends, seeing him sucked through the glass follow. Finding no Winston, only the pages of his book which has come unbound on the flight, they have the sense to split up and look for the heroines of each story hoping to find both Winston and the way out.

Sad to say, the Chimera plot takes a while to get to its feet and have its legs sorted out. When you throw three of the most beloved stories in English literature together, there needs to be some untangling. There are many fine tricks such as the juggling tricks between the Mad Hatter(Schumen), March Hare (Hackney) and Doormouse (Hoffman). The script does not lack for clever turns of phrase (Glinda, (Ruttle) and the Wizard of Oz (Mitchell) both have a fine time twisting their stories). But the action runs dangerously close to chaos and confusion: between the pirates stooges routine, dove-step renditions of the “Queen of the Night” and the riots of costumed color darting from tower to pirate ship to trapdoor to aisle, the audience just grips the arm rests and holds on until we find what we’re looking for: the girls.

Alice (Jacoby) Wendy (Kahkoska) and Dorothy (Cummings), are in a pickle all their own. In the midst of their adventures, far away from home, the girls are grappling with serious personal quandaries. Wendy just wants to keep a bro-ish Peter’s (Herr) attention and be a “mother” to him. She has been taking lessons in beguiling from the mermaids, who her ever-youthful hubby often hangs out with (the effect between the two is like watching a young Betty and Don Drapper, really sad and sneer enduing). Alice, prim and proper, is mired in existential frustration having followed the rules her whole life only to find a place where the rules don’t make sense. As the play goes on Jacoby takes great delight in becoming more and more impish, complete with fan-kicks of rebellion. However it is Dorothy who finally slips a halter around the tossing head of the story with the beautifully penned, and exquisitely sung, soliloquy “The Other Side of the Rainbow”. She doesn’t know what to make of the dangerous and exciting land of color compared to the comforting Kanas world of grey black and white. Maybe it futzes with Dorothy’s motivation a little, but it also makes her broader and deeper, and gives Cummings lots to chew on. After teaming up with their respective guides, the boy’s characters, mere sketches before, are swiftly filled in and crosshatched, grounded, to our eyes, by proximity to the timeless heroines.

Once bridled, the plot begins to pull its wait when danger is introduced. The real measure of a drama lies in its villain, and Flying Home is fortunate enough to have three of the best. When Hook (Perlman), The Queen of Hearts (Olcott) and the Wicked Witch (Staples) stalk onstage they don’t just steal the show, but ask it to turn out its pockets too. They’re motivations for evil are a bit sketchy, but they pursue their goals with such gusto that why’s and wherefores don’t matter. They are also attended by the loyalist of minions: the Queen is caressed lascivious cards, The Witch is backed up by vaudeville Monkeys, and the captain is waited on Hook and Foot by a crusty but touching Smee (Bernsten).

The second act runs much smoother than the first, and crowns itself with perhaps the most inventive, funny, socially conscious, and ridiculous plan perhaps ever devised by the Waa-mu writers. What is it? You’ll have to see.

It becomes rapidly apparent that the best songs have been carefully horded and totted out for the finale. While the musical aspect was merely good before, the songs in the last half hour have a tonic of authenticity, a pocketful of lessons for us to take and mull over in days to come. When Dorothy, Alice and Wendy finally meet and reflect on their adventures and the women they have become in “Home to Me”, their melodious voices were underscored by little sobs throughout the auditorium. That song made all the confusion worth while: the chimera, for all its beastliness, is a wondrous creature.

The ending is a bit of a logistics head-scratcher, and full of message rather than matter, but that in a musical is a minor fault. If they can give us some heavily melody, a few wistful smiles and a grand musical flourish, and a tear-blurred final bow, then we forgive them anything.

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