In 1900 L. Frank Baum published “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” a book that, perhaps, is the quintessential American fairy tale. Though it had multiple incarnations in vaudeville and in early cinema, the 1939 MGM film has become firmly placed in imaginations across the country. Changes made for the movie have become part of the story (for example Dorothy’s shoes were silver in the book but made into ruby slippers for the color spectacular of the film).
In 1902 Baum mounted a musical stage production in Chicago that transferred to Broadway the following year. Modern audiences who love the classic film will find little resemblance in the show Baum produced: Toto was replaced by a cow named Imogen, for example. The political machinations of the plot actually sound much closer to Gregory Maguire’s book, “Wicked: The Life and Times of The Wicked Witch of the West.” Though modern audiences might find it interesting as a relative to the “Wizard of Oz” that they have come to know and love. It is the film version that holds sway over hearts. With that in mind, Opera House Theatre Company brings a stage adaptation of the film to the main stage of Thalian Hall.
Just as a production of “The Sound of Music” is burdened by audience’s expectation of seeing the film re-produced, complete with Julie Andrews’ singing, “The Wizard of Oz” comes with high audience expectations. Certainly, the part of Dorothy, more than any other, is the subject of such hopes. A talented young lady named Abby Bowmansteps up to the challenge of bringing Judy Garland’s most famous role to the live stage. Does she sing like Judy Garland? Nobody does. She sings beautifully, and brings the folly of late childhood/early adolescence and the sweetness of trust in others to life. She emotes a real journey of self-discovery that the audience loves. Though it is her story that we follow, her chemistry with the other principals onstage is palpable.
We first meet her in Kansas. The creative team beautifully recreates the grayscale world of Kansas (remember the movie was in black and white before she went to Oz). The sets, the costumes, even the lightening accentuate the grayness of that world.
Here we meet Uncle Henry (Jason Hatfield), Aunt Em (Amy Tucker-Morgan), and the farm hands that keep the farm running. Dorothy is a lonely child who is largely underfoot. Her best friend is a sweet little dog named Toto (adorably portrayed by the patient Derby in this production). Singing the famous “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” Dorothy longs for something different than the desolate world she inhabits. Accentuating her longing, lighting designer Dallas LaFon slowly manifests a rainbow across the back of the stage. It’s the first hint of the saturated world of color and imagination.
Dorothy and Toto run afoul of Miss Gulch (Samantha Ray Mifsud), the local biddy, who has gotten a sheriff’s order to have Toto destroyed and threatens to seize the Gale’s farm if they don’t comply. Rather than have her only friend killed, Dorothy runs away with Toto. When a tornado comes, the two are swept up and off to the magical land of Oz.
Suddenly everything is bright color, and a good witch named Glinda (Amy Tucker-Morgan) floats in to see what has happened and to reassure the tiny residents of Munchkin Land. There are limits to what can be re-produced onstage from the film, and the budget constraints of Opera House are more realistic than those of MGM. The studio spent over $2 million in 1939 dollars. So, no horse drawn carriage rides onstage. Luckily, the residents of Munchkin Land, composed of 18 adorable performers, enchant not just for Dorothy, but the audience, too.
Some stand out moments include Able Zuckerman as the mayor of Munchkin Land, the coroner (Mary Margaret Overby) pronouncing The Wicked Witch dead, and of course the Lollipop Guild (Quinn Gonzalez, Reno Ray, and Sydney Short). Dorothy and Toto decide to go to Emerald City and ask the Wizard to help them return home.
Following the yellow brick road, they meet a brainless Scarecrow (Jason Aycock), who is so bad at his job he can’t even scare off crows. In Scarecrow’s lament, “If Only I had a Brian,” he’s joined by four crows (Bradley Barefoot, Ethan Drake, Dru Loman, and AJ Robinson). Their costumes and choreography combine so cleverly that they almost upstage Aycock, who effectively showcases all the loose-goosey choreography of Ray Bolger’s famous Scarecrow. At both intermission and after the show, audience members were commenting on how creative and clever the crows were. Along the way they meet a Tin Man (James Ellison) in search of a heart and a Cowardly Lion (Christopher Rickert).
Tony RIvenbark as “the man behind the curtain” (The Wizard of Oz) is great casting. He comes joyful, grand and inventive all at once. Jason Hatfield gives an unxepected but memorable performance as the guard of the Emerald City. It serves to remind what we will be losing when Hatfield moves later this summer. He blends ridiculous Scotsman, Igor’s “walk-this-way” in “Young Frankenstien,” Groucho Marx, and John Cleese (“The Ministry of Silly Walks”) for humor that just won’t stop.
Great performances aside, this show should be visually splendid. And it is. Julie and Selina Harvey do their best to reproduce the film’s costumes, and to make the stage glitter and pop. The special effects are fun and fabulous—the Tin Man even blows steam out of the top of his hat—like in the film. Aaron Willings handles the pyrotechnics and manages to even have the Wicked Witch hurl fire at the Scarecrow without igniting an actor covered in flammable material. And, yes, every time the Wicked Witch enters colored wonderful billows. Glinda flies in a contraption similar to what was used in “Wicked” for an entrance, and the sets are evocative: lots of color saturated drops and the Emerald city is beautifully made up of ‘30’s curving lines with glitter and crystals. It looks magical, it feels exciting and, except for the ridiculous recorded barks for Toto, it is wonderful show technically.
“The Wizard of Oz” has inspired children to dream and reach for something within themselves they didn’t know they could do for over 100 years. Sitting in the balcony watching the children around me when the Munchkins danced and the witches claimed the spot lights, I knew young hearts yearned to join the unfolding excitement on stage. “The Wizard of Oz” will create family memories that will be treasured for years.
The Wizard of Oz
Thalian Hall, 310 Chesnut St.
June 13th – 15th and 20th -22nd, 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.