Grungy glamour fills ACT’s new journey to Oz

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ABOVE: Katrina Lauren McGraw (center) is Glinda, Chanel Tilgham (left) is Dorothy and Travis Santell Rowland is part of the lively ensemble in the American Conservatory Theater production of The Wizard of Oz. BELOW: Attempting an audience with the great and powerful Wizard of Oz are (from left) Beth Wilmurt (Ozian), Darryl V. Jones (Tin Man), Tilghman (Dorothy), El Beh (Guard), Cathleen Riddley (Cowardly Lion) and Danny Scheie (Scarecrow). Photos by Kevin Berne

We’re all friends of Dorothy now. At least that’s what if feels like in American Conservatory Theater’s Pride Month production of The Wizard of Oz now at the Toni Rembe Theater. Part Pride Parade, part homage to the 1939 movie, part glam rock/glitter grunge dime store spectacle, this Oz has a lot going on, including a lengthy running time that inches toward three hours.

Director/choreographer Sam Pinkleton throws abundant ideas into this well-loved, well-worn tale of Dorothy Gale and her trip over the rainbow – some are clever and exciting, others are not. The intention seems to be a homegrown Oz that feels rooted in San Francisco history, with a special interest in LGBTQ+ activism, Summer of Love hippy vibes and queer culture evocation. This may be a story that begins in Kansas, but it ends up in a fantasy world where the Wicked Witch of the West is like a country-western Karen, the Wizard feels like a Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie and Dorothy is a sweetly nondescript teenager in a Batman t-shirt. There’s even (at least on opening night) an appearance by the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band marching across the stage.

It feels like Pinkleton wants to whip up a tornado of fun – a new, slightly edgier take on a beloved story but told with just enough sincerity and heart to keep the traditionalists (reasonably) happy. The tornado, for instance, is now a dance piece in which ensemble member Travis Santell Woland wears football shoulder pads from which dangles a dense fringe of plastic caution tape and spins around the stage. There are tall fans, tossed confetti, a Twister game mat (very funny) and a lot of chaos, but not much storytelling about where Dorothy is in all of this. We know where she is because this story is in our DNA at this point, but the stage is more confusing than it needs to be.

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There’s also a unique solution to the yellow-brick road. We never actually see it, but whenever the gang is “off to see the Wizard,” audience members wave the yellow paper napkins they find in their programs.

Set and costume designer David Zinn is clearly having fun with a non-traditional Oz. There are tinsel curtains aplenty, mirrors and multicolored Christmas lights. The challenge of Munchkinland is cleverly addressed (mostly with household objects and googly eyes), and when there’s a need for flashy costumes, like for Glinda (a marvelous Katrina Lauren McGraw in a cloud of pinks) or for residents of the Emerald City, Zinn delivers with some genuine glamor. His costumes for Dorothy’s trio of fellow travelers focus on the humans rather than the creatures. Danny Scheie as the scene-stealing Scarecrow, is outfitted in hippy-ish crochet and a hat that’s actually a crushed milk carton. Darryl V. Jones as the Tin Man might be confused for a leather daddy if leather came in silver. And Cathleen Riddley as the Cowardly Lion is less predator and more teddy bear with a tail.

The sound of the show also takes a turn from the traditional, and in place of the lush MGM orchestrations for the classic Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg score, we have electronic sounds as if from the early days of the Moog synthesizer. But when Chanel Tilghman’s Dorothy offers her lovely take on “Over the Rainbow,” we get cast members augmenting the on-stage five-piece band with cello, ukulele, violin and a surprise woodshed tool (that also happens to be surprisingly beautiful). I was kind of hoping at some point all that chilly electronica would erupt into a disco dance party, but that never really happens, although our time in Munchkinland comes close.

Working from a faithful 1987 stage adaptation of the movie by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Pinkleton’s Oz feels less like an archetypal journey and more like an intermittent drag cabaret performed on the smaller proscenium with in the proscenium. I have to admit that as an adult, I find the plot rather tedious, and although this crew is exceptionally lively, I still found myself anxious to get to the “ignore that man behind the curtain” moment. There is surprising poignancy as Dorothy bids her Oz friends goodbye, but that may be borne more from familiarity than any deep feeling the production has earned.

Pinkleton throws a lot at this wizardly wall to see what might stick, and in the end, not much really does. It’s a vessel we all know and love dressed up and enlivened in some interesting ways, but once we’re back in Kansas, the memory of the dream feels disappointingly hollow. This Oz is fun. It’s fresh. But it’s ultimately frustrating.

American Conservatory Theater’s The Wizard of Oz continues through June 25 at the Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes (including one 20-minute intermission). Tickets are $. Call or visit

On his toes: Matthew Linzer of Smuin Ballet

On an uncharacteristically hot San Francisco afternoon, the halls of City Ballet are swarmed with dancers young old. The younger ones are there for afternoon classes. The older ones, most of them members of Smuin Ballet, are just finishing up rehearsals for the launch of the spring season.

This is the 15th anniversary season of Smuin Ballet, founded by Michael Smuin, and on this particular afternoon, some of the older dancers are holding plastic cups with champagne to toast Smuin’s memory on the second anniversary of his death.

Matthew Linzer

The show, as they say, must go on, and so it has for two years, with new dances, new choreographers and new dances carrying on the Smuin Ballet legacy.

Matthew Linzer has been with Smuin Ballet for two years. He never actually got to work with Smuin, but they did meet. Linzer, who is Juilliard trained, was dancing with Diablo Ballet at the time. Smuin watched Linzer in class and then joked with the 6’4″ dancer, “We’re looking for someone taller.” “I’ll work on that,” Linzer joked back.

That was just several weeks before Smuin died.

“I quite regret not having worked with him,” Linzer says. “My dance partner, Robin Cornwell (seen below with Linzer, photo by Marty Sohl), was close to Michael, and she thinks he and I would have gotten along very well. I miss him even though I didn’t really know him and I feel his influence in the people he did work with.”

Smuin Ballet as a company performs more short than full-length work and isn’t afraid to incorporate some Broadway-style showmanship into the work.

“There’s a unique diversity to the work done by Smuin,” Linzer says. “It can be playful, like last year in our Gershwin program, we did a kick line, and I never thought I’d be doing one of those. And it can be serious, too, like with Bouquet in this season’s program.”

Smuin choreographed Bouquet to the music of Shostakovich, and Linzer dances the pas de deux with Cornwell.

“It’s a beautiful, sexy story set in Hawaii with the woman on the beach and the man coming out of the water,” Linzer says. “They make love and it’s very intense, light but heavy. Very loving. It’s fun to have a character and a role.”

Linzer has another character in the program of three works. He plays the character Bigelow, noted by his green zoot suit, in St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet, originally conceived to the music of Harold Arlen by the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2003. He also dances in the third piece, The Naughty Boy! created by Trey McIntyre.

“I like variety in my world,” Linzer says. “I get to dance and be beautiful, but then with a piece like St. Louis Woman, I get to act as well, and that brings a whole new dimension to performance.”

Robin_Cornwell_Matt Linzer_Photo_by_Marty_Sohl

The 27-year-old Linzer grew up outside of Washington, D.C., and pretty early on his parents saw that he was a dancer. Even before he was in kindergarten, Linzer was taking weekend dance classes and ended up at prestigious Juilliard for 2 ½ years.

Having previously danced with Bowen McCauley Dance, Ballet Memphis and Oakland Ballet, Linzer lives the life of a professional dancer, which means when he’s not rehearsing or performing, he’s probably taking care of himself. It’s a hard life for friends to fully understand. He works from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sundays. A sufficient amount of rest is essential to body maintenance, as are occasional Epsom salt baths, massages, stretching sessions, icing sessions and trips to the chiropractor.

“It’s a lifestyle, not just a job,” Linzer says. “When I go home, I’m exhausted. I have a lot of friends outside the dance world, and they want to go out and do something, but I can’t always go because at 9 a.m., I’m going to be lifting girls.”

Not that Linzer is complaining. He still manages to get to concerts (he recently saw the Fleet Foxes at the new Fox in Oakland) and spend time with his boyfriend. He says he loves his job and knows how lucky he is to be able to do it. And then there’s the relatively short shelf life of a dancer. Most professional dance careers are over between the ages of 30 and 40, which means Linzer has about a decade left of dancing.

“I know it will be time to go when the pain begins to outweigh the passion,” he says.

Linzer is enthusiastic about pursuing choreography, which he has done for the last two years in Smuin’s choreographic workshop in which dancers create dances for one another. Earlier this year, Linzer created the dance piece The Sound of a Circle, which was inspired by a trip he took to Israel several summers ago.

“When I was in Israel, I was struck by the contrast of the young and hip and the old and traditional,” Linzer recalls. “Creating that piece touched a different side of me. I think people in the audience were amazed by the variety of classical dance, hip-hop and humor. I like to reassure the dance audience. People tend to be afraid of the formality and don’t’ trust what they’re watching. People need to know that whatever they’re seeing, however they’re responding to it, that’s correct. There’s no such thing as a wrong answer.”


Inevitably, people tend to see Matthew Linzer’s life as a dancer through the lens of whatever ballet movie they’ve happened to see most recently.

Linzer is not a fan of such hits as CenterStage or The Company. He deems those “awful.” But he does recommend Ballets Russes, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker and Billy Elliot.



Smuin Ballet’s Spring Program performs May 8-17 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco (tickets $18-$50), May 23-24 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek ($40-$55), May 27-31 at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts in Mountain View ($40-$55). Call 415-495-2234 or visit for information.