Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The Wizard of Oz
For those unfamiliar with the film or the L. Frank Baum series of books it is based on, the plot follows Dorothy Gale, a misunderstood young teenage girl in farmland Kansas who dreams of finding a place over the rainbow where she can belong. When a tornado comes along and whisks Dorothy, her dog Toto, and her house to the colorful land of Oz she finds an interesting land and has encounters with many strange and mostly friendly creatures. These include a scarecrow, a man made of tin, and a talking lion, as well as two witches, one lovely and sweet, the other ugly and horrible, and a wizard who is wonderful and nice. But, even with all of these friendly creatures, all of whom resemble someone Dorothy knows from Kansas, and the magical and colorful land of Oz, she finds that she really wishes she could just go back home.
This stage version includes the popular songs from the film score by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, which include "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" and the Oscar-winning "Over the Rainbow," but producer/composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice have also supplemented the movie songs with several new ones. While most of Lloyd Webber and Rice's new compositions pale in comparison to the film tunes, there is a nice new song all about "home" for Glinda and Dorothy toward the end of act two and a funny "Red Shoes Blues" for the Wicked Witch in which Rice rhymes "clueless" with "shoeless" and, while it may not be as clever as some of Harburg's lyrics, it does give the Witch a song of her own, and a funny one at that. There are also two new songs near the beginning of act one, which, while giving a little more stage time to the character of Professor Marvel and Dorothy's Kansas family, also mean additional and unnecessary stage time added that slow down the plot before Dorothy can get to Oz. Lloyd Webber has also contributed some additional background music that is used in combination with Herbert Stothart's original lush film background music. Though for some strange reason, during one climatic moment Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" is used instead of something original or a piece of Stothart's film music.
Likewise, the book has also been supplemented by Lloyd Webber and director Jeremy Sams to fill in a few of the gaps in the film script, like a mention of what happened to Miss Gulch's plans to take away Toto once Dorothy returns back home. There is also the addition of some modern references as well as a couple of funny recurring ideas; the one that works best is how the Scarecrow is always forgetting what he is thinking, which makes complete sense as he doesn't have a brain. While the few added items in the opening sequence are cute and better spell out each Kansas character's relationship to their corresponding Oz one (for instance, the character of Zeke, who is the Lion in Oz, has a long piece of his jacket's belt hanging down from his back to appear as a tale), it seems fairly unnecessary since anyone who has seen the movie already knows the Oz character's Kansas counterparts, and for those who've never seen the film the added information won't make any sense since they've yet to see who these people are in Oz. There are also some modern phrases like "can you hear me now?," which some will find funny and may be a way for modern audiences to relate to the story, but others will find such phrases a detraction from the classic interpretation.
Danielle Wade, who was chosen by the Canadian public through CBC TV's reality show "Over The Rainbow" to star in the Toronto production of the show that opened in December of 2012 and ran through last August, makes a touching Dorothy. She makes her speaking voice higher in order to portray a teenage girl, and her vocals are clear and succinct. And, though the very beginning of "Over the Rainbow" was just a little weak at the performance I attended, she recovered and ended the song with a note that soared. She also has a lovely interaction with all of the "people" Dorothy meets on her journey as well as those back home in Kansas. Overall, it is a sweet, lovely and touching performance that shows the innocence and vulnerability of the character.
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan as the Wicked Witch of the West is far less scary than Margaret Hamilton in the film, playing the part more as a cross between Hamilton, Idina Menzel as a grown up "Elphaba" from Wicked, and the comical "Witchiepoo" from "H.R. Pufnstuf." Perhaps the idea to make her more comical and less scary is to not frighten the younger children in the audience, but while she has no problem in pulling off the silly, comical and only partly scary witch, I wish she were playing it more like Hamilton in order to have more counterpoint to the already comical characters scattered throughout the show.
As one of Dorothy's new friends, Lee MacDougall as the Cowardly Lion plays up the "dandy" part very well and gets the best lines, including a nice added "I'm proud to be a friend of Dorothy" one. Mike Jackson as the Tin Man has a voice that is so clear and strongI wish he had more to sing. Jamie McKnight as the Scarecrow, while just slightly over the top and often rushing his jokes, still manages to be endearing.
Jay Brazeau is fine as the Wizard, though I like his portrayal of Professor Marvel better as he brings the right amount of excitement and wonder to the character in his act one scene with Dorothy and a perfect moment of affection and concern for Dorothy's well-being when he reappears at the end of the show. As Glinda, Robin Evan Willis is beautiful, with a genuinely pure voice. She doesn't try to imitate the high voice and "above it all" take on the part that Billie Burke's film Glinda displayed, instead choosing a more down to earth, relatable character. Toto, played by rescue dog Nigel, is one of the best trained dogs I've ever seen in a stage production, never barking, always hitting his mark and staying perfectly in place, even during some of the more hectic moments.
Director Sams does a fine job in moving us along on the journey from Kansas to Oz and back again. Choreographer Arlene Phillips has provided an energetic bit of dancing that turns the Witch's henchmen into a group of stylized line dancers with clanking batons as they rejoice at the Witch's death, an added bonus to that somewhat quick moment in the film. However, the Munchkinland dance's bizarre hoe-down in a very slip shod fashion and the strange erotic dance during "Red Shoes Blues" are completely uninspired and out of place with the rest of the production.
The set design by Robert Jones uses a few small yet elaborate set pieces in addition to a number of large colorful drops to whisk us from sepia-toned Kansas to the colorful land of Oz. Jones' designs are superb and show how scaled-down tour sets can still be quite effective when done right. Jones' costumes are just as good with the brown and grey hued Kansas clothes offset beautifully by the bright, vibrant colors of the Oz costumes. His designs for the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion are a lovely homage but not a direct copy of the film ones and he also gives us nicely updated designs for the witches, with Piro wearing a stunning green and black ensemble with her long black hair pulled up to form a make-shift witch's hat.
Excellent projections and film elements by Jon Driscoll provide lovely transitions between several of the scenes and are used extremely well to show the tornado and the many flying moments in the show. While most of these are projected onto a front scrim, in order to provide time for scene changes happening behind it, the tornado projection on the back screen of the stage, behind the Kansas set pieces, is very effective in showing the oncoming twister. The lighting design by Hugh Vanstone not only paints a haunting picture of the oncoming twister and the colorful land of Oz but also washes the audience in a sea of stars and light at appropriate moments in the show.
The Wizard of Oz is a classic story and while there have been many recent adaptions of Baum's classic tale, none will ever top the achievements of the original 1939 film. The current national tour has a more than capable cast and phenomenal creative elements; even with somewhat uninspired choreography and a few added forgettable songs, the story of Dorothy and her journey to Oz is still thrilling, touching and extremely heartfelt.
The Wizard of Oz runs through February 9th at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.wizardofozthemusical.com.
Music: Harold Arlen