Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Few shows have the instant name recognition to compare with The Wizard of Oz. The current national tour of the stage version of the film, as seen at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, playfully conveys this endearing tale of friendship, hope, and home with theatrical flair.
This live adaptation of L. Frank Baum's classic tale, which closely follows the 1939 MGM film of the same name, is based on the production presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The familiar characters such as Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Wicked Witch, Glinda and the Wizard have been pulled into other stage shows such as The Wiz, Wicked, and Was, but they'll be forever known best in this form. This version sports a book by John Kane, who throws in a few cute extras (a Lion King joke among them) to augment a fairly traditional and straightforward take on the material, which significantly resembles the movie script. The famous songs by Harold Arlen (music) and E.Y. Harburg (lyrics) are all present, as well as "The Jitterbug," which was written and filmed for the MGM screen rendering, but dropped prior to release. This family friendly show will introduce young audience members to tunes such as "Over The Rainbow," and "We're Off To See The Wizard," and allow Oz fans to experience them in a worthwhile live format.
As Dorothy, Cassie Okenka (known to fans of the MTV's "Legally Blonde: The Search for Elle Woods" reality show) provides crystal clear vocals and portrays the role with spunk and warmth without ever coming across as a copycat of Judy Garland. Noah Aberlin showcases splendid dancing as a rubber-legged Scarecrow, while Chris Kind delivers with a sympathetic and sentimental Tin Man. As the Lion, Jason Simon proves to be a fine comedian.
Pat Sibley wisely pulls back a bit as the Wicked Witch as to not scare the smaller children in the audience, and Robert John Biedermann is a bumbling but well-meaning Wizard. Caitlin Maloney and Bruce Warren show great versatility, she as both the stern Aunt Em and the caring Glinda, and he as the hardened Uncle Henry and the loopy Emerald City Guard. Snickers hits all of his cues and is a crowd favorite as Toto. Local children play the munchkins and Winkies capably, and the adult ensemble members really shine in several key moments.
Director Nigel West infuses a fun and lively spirit into the production. His playful and inventive use of the chorus members in several scenes, including "If I Only Had A Brain" and "If I Only Had A Heart," is praiseworthy. If the transitions and mid-act two scenes lag a bit, it may be because Cincinnati marks one of the first stops for this tour and more time may fix these minor quibbles. The dances by choreographer Leigh Constantine are energetic and apt, and are highlighted in "Poppies" and "The Jitterbug." Nate Patten does a fine job leading a solid nine-piece orchestra.
Tim McQuillen-Wright provides both the costumes and sets for this production. Projections are used well in complementing set pieces to create both the bleakly black, white and gray Kansas scenes as well as the eye-popping Oz locations. All are uniquely Oz appropriate without being copies of the film designs. The costumes are pretty standard for what you would expect in The Wizard of Oz, but are beautifully designed and crafted. There's also a smart theatrical trick involving costumes late in the first act that is visually pleasing. Lighting designer Bob Bonniol assists in creating the appropriate atmosphere with his work as well.
There is little that is groundbreaking about the current tour of this well-known tale, but audiences seeking a faithful and well-put together stage production of the musical will certainly be pleased, thanks to the talented cast and creative team. The national tour of The Wizard of Oz continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through November 23, 2008. Tickets can be ordered by calling (513) 241-7469.-- Scott Cain