The creative passion that abounds in “The Lost Princess of Oz,” the upcoming extravaganza of movement and music presented by the Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theatre Company (AXCBT) in partnership with the Center for the Arts at Monmouth University, will fill you with positivity and immerse the renovated Pollak Theater at the University where it runs Aug. 20 through Aug. 28.
The story is based on two of the 14 books from L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz series, “The Lost Princess of Oz,” published in 1917, and “Ozma of Oz,” published in 1907. The quirky tales follow the adventures of familiar characters, Dorothy et al, and a handful of characters from the tales including Frogman, Patchwork Girl, and the clockwork man Tik-Tok.
While crossing the Pacific Ocean by boat, Dorothy is caught in a storm, survives by holding on to a chicken coop, wakes to meet a talking hen named Billina, and comes ashore at a desert in Oz.
A magic picture, book of pages, belt and cookie pan have been stolen from Oz, and Glenda leads the group to search for Princess Ozma and recover the stolen items.
Conceived of and created by AXCBT Artistic Director Gabriel Chajnik, with a libretto by Shannon Hill, an original bluegrass-infused score by Houston-based composer Chris Becker, a six-piece musical ensemble, professional dancers from AXCBT, and grade school-age dance students participating in the Axelrod Performing Art Academy, the production brings the century-plus stories into 2022.
Chajnik also added singing to the mix, calling on Monmouth County’s own chart-topping country music duo, Reagan Richards and Gordon Brown, who perform under the name of Williams Honor, in the show. Richards sings and narrates as Billina. Brown signs and narrates as Baum, and sits on the stage writing the unfolding tale on his typewriter. “There is something about the human voice together with movement,” Chajnik said. “When you combine those two elements, it is so powerful.”
“Why country music?” I naively asked. “We know the story of Dorothy happens in the Midwest,” Chajnik answered. “It’s Americana!” “Besides,” he added, “Frank Baum was the creator of the American fairy tale genre.”
Chris Becker, who wrote the score, started exploring arts — like writing poetry and drawing comics — when he was a teenager. “But eventually, music drew me in,” he said. “I was intrigued with live performance and performance arts,” he said. While at a small college in Columbus, Ohio, Becker met someone who was studying dance at nearby Ohio State University, and they started to collaborate. After that, Becker’s experiences broadened.
“I was meeting people from other communities and other cultures,” he said, “and working with dance was one of the things I got to do.” This, as it turns out, set Becker on a path, and he was able to easily transition from music in general to writing music for dance. “Even today,” he said, “as soon as I get the barest idea of what a dance is about, the music comes very quickly.”
Chajnik said he and Becker have been working remotely for months. “I built the plot and the roadmap,” he said, “then I sent it to Chris and he started writing. He is very experienced working with dance. He understands the dynamic.”
Chajnik noted that Becker has written a lot of music for the ballet, which is important. “We need that time to build the narrative and do justice to the story.” The two-act ballet runs 2 hours with a 20-minute intermission.
This is not Chajnik’s first foray into creating a ballet around children’s literature. Previous productions included Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” in which Chajnik’s brought together traditional Indian dance with ballet and contemporary styles, “Alice in Wonderland,” an original work created, directed, and choreographed by Chajnik and based on passages from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and his poems, Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and Chajnik’s thoroughly refashioned take on “The Nutcracker,” adapted from E. T. A. Hoffmann's “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” which Chajnik titled “Nutcracker ROCKS!”
“What makes stories geared to young people such a good basis for dance?” I asked Chajnik.
“Children’s literature translates well into dance,” he said. “They are well-known stories, and they serve as a familiar point of reference.”
These literary ballets, Chajnik explains, are very approachable. “They expose young minds to concert dance.” And when a child sees a performance like this – with live music and dazzling costumes in a beautiful theater space – it is very different from a recital, which may have been their only previous experience watching dance.
“We bring children to see concert dance, and they will go on to pass the torch,” he said. “Then, in 10 or 20 or 30 years, as adults, these children may go on to be dance-goers, company founders, attorneys who represent dancers, therapists who work with people in the arts. They will remain connected.”
“I do audience development in my own way,” he said.
Another aspect of presenting child-friendly works is that young people seeing these performances may be able to envision themselves as dancers.
“If a child doesn’t know how to dance,” Chajnik said, “we can teach them at the Axelrod Performing Arts Academy.”
He went on to tick off some benefits of dance instruction. “It helps to develop strength and discipline,” he said, “and the wonderful, nurturing nature of dance can help a young mind to express themselves without using words.”
“They learn to speak with movement.”
I asked both Chajnik and Vaune Peck, the founding Director of the Monmouth University Center for the Arts, how they use the ballet company and the theater to create a welcoming outlet for cultural programming not just for young people, but for the larger community in Monmouth County.
Chajnik believes the best approach is to offer something familiar and known but to put a different spin on it. For example, consider his holiday production “Nutcracker ROCKS!”
Instead of the traditional approach to the beloved ballet, Chajnik fashioned a story that would ring truer with the regional audience by making it “more Jersey Shore.”
The music is Tchaikovsky infused with rock and roll. The party scene at the beginning of Act I takes place in a minimalist-style Manhattan apartment. Young Clara, a spoken word artist, is bored with the holidays and scoffs at her mother’s talk of the Christmas spirit. Uncle Drosselmeyer, the black sheep of the family, brings Clara a nutcracker with an electric guitar. “Instead of giving the children dolls,” Chajnik said, “he gives them music.” In the fantasy-filled Act II, the soldiers wield guitars, not swords, and rather than a dreamy visit to the forest, Drosselmeyer takes Clara on a tour of Seaside Heights.
Lindsay Jorgensen in The Lost Princess of Oz. GS Photography
Peck takes advantage of the college campus setting to create stimulating and entertaining experiences for the community as well as the University students.
“The Center for the Arts provides access to national touring artists and cultural programs, and also ties into the academic curriculum as well, such as this production of “The Lost Princess of Oz,” she said. “As often as possible, I engage visiting artists in presenting workshops, master classes, and Q&A sessions that bring added value to the performances.”
“We can also provide a way for people to escape for a few hours,” she said, “and maybe learn something new or discover that they enjoy something that they didn’t think they would like.”
“I’ve had students attend programs that were assigned to them by a professor,” she said. “And when they leave, they say ‘I’m so glad they made me come.’”
The relationship between AXCBT and the Center for the Arts began before the start of the pandemic, when AXCBT did not have a rehearsal space and began using the Center’s Lauren K. Woods Theatre to rehearse.
But the most exciting part for Peck is seeing the audience completely enraptured by a performance. “There is an interchange of energy that happens, and I get to see and feel that. That is what success feels like for me.”
Reagan Richards, voice of Billina
Gordon Brown as Baum
Denzel Green as the Cowardly Lion
Paulo Gutierrez as the Scarecrow
Alyssa Harris as Caykee
Lindsey Jorgensen as Billina
Olivia Miranda as the Patchwork Girl
Jose Rojas as the Tin Man
Tuyaya Balzhieva and Gillian Worek , alternates as Glinda the Good Witch
Andrew Black, who appeared in “Anything Goes” on Broadway, created the tap numbers for Ms. Collins
Lilakoi Grover and Alina Xio, alternates as Dorothy
Scarlet Collins as Jellia Jam
AXCBT Trainee Deshon Parkman as Frogman
A special preview performance will feature a Q&A with Chajnik and the artists following the performance on August 19.