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Repaving the Yellow Brick Road in ingenious ‘Bricklayers of Oz’

Choreographer Jessica Deahr stars as the Wicked Witch of the East in the Chicago Dance Crash production of "The Bricklayers of Oz." (Photo: Ashley Deran)

Since its publication in 1900, L. Frank Baum’s novel ‘The Wonderful of Wizard of Oz,” has been the source of countless iterations, from the magical 1939 MGM film, to the urbanized musical “The Wiz,” to that back-story tale, “Wicked.”

But there is something about “The Bricklayers of Oz,” dancer-choreographer Jessica Deahr’s ingenious new hip-hop dance-theater piece for Chicago Dance Crash, that is so imaginative, so playfully revisionist, so of the moment in its biting social commentary, and so superbly realized by all the artists involved, that it feels like an instant classic all its own. Sophisticated enough to please any adult, and propulsive and glittery enough to captivate young audiences, it should enjoy a life far beyond its current brief engagement through Aug. 5 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. (The Broadway Playhouse would be an ideal commercial venue for the show, but the producers there have their own ideas for that often underutilized stage.)

Highly recommended
When: Through Aug. 5
Where: Chicago Dance Crash at
Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $25 (adults), $15 (children 12 and under)
Info: www.chicagodancecrash.com
Run time: 75 minutes with no intermission

KC Bevis (from left), Kristi Licera, Elijah Motley and Zak McMahon in a scene from Chicago Dance Crash’s hip-hop dance-theater piece “The Bricklayers of Oz.” (Photo: Ashley Deran)

Deahr, who also serves as artistic director of Dance Crash (the Midwest’s leading fusion-style contemporary dance company that blends concert dance and hip hop techniques, which is now celebrating its 15th anniversary) has devised a genuine keeper whose animating concept spins a wholly original (and heretofore unexplored) tale of how the Yellow Brick Road was actually constructed. Though it’s primarily a dance piece, the spare but incisive narration and original lyrics by Al Tamper are ideally integrated throughout, and it all moves to a score that deftly laces together music by everyone from the Belgian rapper,Stromae and American rapper B. Dolan (“Rats Get Fat”), to Fats Waller’s take on “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” And the eclectic beats go on and on.

The story unfolds before Dorothy’s house blows in from Kansas and crushes the Wicked Witch of the East (a terrific performance by Deahr, dressed in a chic, futuristic silver body suit that is just one of the many eye-popping costumes designed by Jeff Hancock). The Witch is making plans for a major infrastructure project for the Land of Oz, where the Munchkins serve as her obsequious supporters. A shrewd manipulator, she commandeers The Skeezers — her country’s tireless but rather gullible laborers, embodied by a group of fiercely athletic hip-hop and break dancers — to do the heavy lifting and the hard work of making and then laying the bricks for the road. (These magical building blocks take the form of color-shifting light boxes made by Josh Weckesser and Bread & Roses Productions. Cheers, too, for lighting designer Erik Barry.)

The bricklayers work like mad to get the job done, but when they are unceremoniously locked out of the posh celebratory party for the completion of the road project, a powerful sense of rebellion takes hold. Things are going to change in Oz, particularly for the Wicked Witch. And you can see it and feel it in the dancing that is exceptional in its acrobatic fearlessness, freedom and precision.

All connections to the extreme class divide in our real world are instantly understood here, with The Skeezers (led by KC Bevis and David Ingram, along with Kristi Licera, Zak McMahon, Elijah Motley, Porscha Spells and Monternez Rezell) finally driven to demand an end to being “second class citizens of Paradise.” Dancing the Munchkins are Kelsie Jayne (who falls for a Skeezer), Charlie Cutler, Brian Hare, Brian Humpherys, Kelsey Reiter and Danielle Wilson. (Note: Rich Ashworth, Keely Morris, James Morrow and Steph Paul are credited by Deahr for supplying choreographic source material.)

All in all, “The Bricklayers of Oz” lays down 75 minutes of thoroughly engaging storytelling. And when next you watch Dorothy,  the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion ease on down that Yellow Brick road, you will undoubtedly remember just who paved the way.

The cast of the Chicago Dance Crash production of “The Bricklayers of Oz” (with dancer-choreographer Jessica Deahr carried aloft). (Photo: Ashley Deran)