What do sexual molestation, AIDS and prostitution have to do with The Wizard of Oz? Well, the world premiere of the musical Was, currently playing at The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, attempts to answer that question. Was has been highly anticipated by many theater enthusiasts, and the piece certainly provides a unique twist on the origin and "true" life of Dorothy Gale, the main character from The Wizard of Oz. The musical version of Was offers much to admire, but ultimately feels unnecessary.
Was presents two parallel stories simultaneously. The main plot involves a 1980s actor named Jonathan who is dying of AIDS. Obsessed with The Wizard of Oz since childhood, he travels to Kansas to find evidence of the existence of the "real" Dorothy Gale. At the same time, we meet a young and newly orphaned Dorothy arriving in Kansas to live with her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry in the late 1870s. As Dorothy's difficult life plays out with dark and dramatic consequences, Jonathan likewise deals with challenges from both his past and his impending fate. This Dorothy Gale never travels to Oz, but rather makes a startling impression on author L. Frank Baum and becomes the basis for the well-known character. Jonathan seeks to find proof of this history, and to connect at last with something real from his childhood fantasies.
The musical is based on a novel of the same name written by Geoff Ryman. While the novel includes a third storyline regarding Judy Garland, the creators of the musical have wisely chosen to emphasize only the Dorothy/Jonathan plots. For the most part, the book of the musical by Barry Kleinbort is interesting, believable and intriguing. Using a familiar character such as Dorothy Gale provides a solid foundation to work from, and there is sufficient emotional investment created in the character of Jonathan. However, there is room for improvement. Jonathan's motivation for his trip is not established until the second act, in the song "Escape," and moving that scene to the first part of the show would clarify his character. In addition, the less-than-happy events surrounding Dorothy's life are quite depressing, and the final scene linking the two lead characters seems somewhat contrived and forced. Several storytelling devices, including flashbacks and to-the-audience narration, are used a bit too often and grow a bit tiresome by the final scene.
The score, with music by Joseph Thalken and lyrics by Kleinbort, is a mixture of standout songs and unremarkable musical scenes. The first fourth of the show is musically ordinary and unmemorable, and the score doesn't come alive until the spirited "Lucky Day," when we see how Jonathan met his partner Ira in college. Act two has a number of stronger tunes, including "Escape" (with some quick and tricky internal rhymes), "Time" (a dream love song between the two partners), and "Was." The title song is sung by an elderly Dorothy, now called Dotty, and is analogous to "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." While the film classic explains Dorothy's longing for a different and better place, "Was" is the now-institutionalized woman's remembrance and desire for her days as a carefree youth with friends and freedom. The trouble is, the young Dorothy we're shown in this musical doesn't really match the one described in this beautiful song. The music for these songs and a few others (notably "Dorothy's Essay") contain unexpected but lovely melodic lines. However, too many other songs just don't register from either a storytelling or musical perspective.
The cast for Human Race's production is a top-notch mix of local and New York talent. As Jonathan, Jeffrey Doornbos sings capably and is convincing as a man searching for a final connection. Three actresses portray Dorothy/Dotty at various ages. Erin Elizabeth Ulman is a competent actress and singer, but is given the weakest material of the three to work with as Young Dorothy. Jessica Grove turns in a winning and heartfelt performance as teenage Dorothy. She is a gifted singer and communicates deep levels with her finely tuned non-verbal cues as well. Interestingly enough, Ms. Grove played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz' major Madison Square Garden and national tour production several years ago. Renee Franck-Reed is the elderly Dotty, and is suitably hardened yet also touching in singing the title number.
Several especially strong performances are also turned in from members of the ensemble. Alan Souza is given most of the piece's comic relief and delivers the material with panache as Ira, Jonathan's partner. James Darrah is perhaps the most impressive actor, though, scoring exceptionally well as both L. Frank Baum and Bill, Jonathan's therapist who met Dotty as a young man. Rounding out this talented cast are Scott Hunt, Peak Kwinarian, Katie Pees, Marya Spring, Moira Stone, Scott Stoney, Melanie Vaughan, Aaron Vega, and Nick Verina.
Director David Pittu provides mostly smooth transitions between the alternating stories and settings, maintains a consistent and appropriate tone, and very effectively stages several scenes. However, the first few scenes are too unfocused, and the piece as a whole seems too slowly paced. Music Director Joseph Bates leads a talented seven-piece orchestra.
The aptly spare scenic design by Mark Halpin consists mostly of a wooden floor with planks configured in a spiral shape, along with other wood set pieces, posts, beams and sliding panels. The costumes as supplied by Mary Beth McLaughlin are period appropriate and attractive. Especially nice is teenage Dorothy's blue-checkered dress that isn't a duplication of, but playfully hints at, the dress featured in the famous film. There are several extremely effective lighting effects provided by John Rensel.
Was is an interesting story that requires careful consideration from its audience. The musical succeeds on many levels, but in the end, there's a strong feeling that this story isn't one that was crying out for dramatization. Was continues at the Human Race Theatre Company through October 31, 2004. For tickets, call (937) 228-3630.