Almira Gulch is one of the silver screen's most memorable bit players, even if her name doesn't ring a bell. She threatened to kill Toto in the opening scenes of The Wizard of Oz, and the musical snippet that accompanied her frenzied cycling is as much a familiar jingle for crazed malice as the few bass notes from Jaws are for impending doom.
In the cabaret show, Miss Gulch Returns!, Fred Barton (Forbidden Broadway) explores a different legacy for the spinster. Pianist Jim Walpole craftily handled the translation of Gulch's theme song into an almost upbeat ditty repeated throughout the show at Mid-City Theatre. Bob Edes Jr. combined a seasoned command of the show's clever tunes and dour laments with poised humor and unflappable rapport as Miss Gulch.
Gulch doesn't take the audience to Oz. Instead, its heart is stuck in Kansas, lonely and even bitter. Edes begins the show sitting at a baby grand piano as if in a bar, conducting a conversation with an imaginary Gulch, who once went to bars for companionship and now finds solace in booze. Edes soon transforms into Gulch, wearing one of the least impressive wigs producers Running with Scissors has ever brought to the stage, and it becomes clear that Gulch is an alter ego for gay men who perhaps have always loved Judy Garland, but started to empathize with Gulch rather than Dorothy. Gulch jokes that her big musical number was cut from the film, dryly adding that "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was almost nixed as well, but Garland got lucky. Gulch's tune, "I'm a Bitch," is revisited frequently during the show.
The musical features some funny tunes, especially "Pour Me a Man," which is full of racy double entendres. But as Gulch recounts her life out of the spotlight, she clearly and endearingly pines for a different kind of adoration. A couple of songs border on maudlin, but Edes balances the humor and yearning in others, making them more heartfelt. Occasionally, Edes wickedly punctuates Gulch's stories with the Wicked Witch of the West's memorable scream. Even if Gulch won't melt anyone's heart, the show will warm it for an evening. — WILL COVIELLO