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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

The Wizard of Oz at The 5th Avenue Theatre

Recreating a classic movie musical as a stage musical is rarely a good idea. No matter how much talent the live actors have, how can they hope to compete with the bigger than life memory of the stars we all remember from the silver screen? Well, in the case of the 5th Avenue Theatre's holiday season production of The Wizard of Oz, a virtually all-Seattle based cast mostly manages to infuse enough of their own unique personas into their roles to keep their portrayals from being mere impersonations. Add to this a handsome physical production and a truly wonderful orchestra lead by musical director Bruce Monroe, and a merry old time can still be had in the merry old land of Oz.

John Kane's slavishly faithful Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of the 1939 film doesn't offer up many surprises to diehard fans, other than having a few more characters from Kansas also pop up in Ozian form (Drab Aunt Em becomes glamorous Glinda while Uncle Henry is the Winkie General). The film songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg are all intact, including the famously deleted "Jitterbug" number, cannily introduced by the Wicked Witch of the West who has no musical number in the film. And for good measure, Herbert Stothart's admirable background score is also on hand. After all, has any theme from any movie ever been more identifiable than that used by Stothart to cue in the Wicked Witch of the West/Miss Gulch?

Bill Berry directs and stages the large cast well and, despite a few slow patches, the overly familiar tale of a bored young Kansas girl's fantasy of going over the rainbow still holds interest. However, there are a few missteps along this yellow brick road. As Dorothy, Cara Rudd is attractive, energetic, and certainly has a strong voice, but, in a role where comparisons are the most inevitable, she misses the empathy, vocal brilliance, and way with a lyric that were hallmarks of Judy Garland's film characterization. Similarly, Greg Michael Allen, who seemed such a likely fit for the role of the Scarecrow, doesn't really emanate the kind of warmth that would make him Dorothy's most cherished traveling companion. Louis Hobson, however, delivers an engaging, vocally rich, and light-footed take on the Tin Man, and Laurence Ballard's Cowardly Lion is full of gusto and good humor, while veering away from the hammier aspects of Bert Lahr's film performance. Always one of Seattle's most versatile actors, Ballard is turning into quite the song and dance man.

The ever-luminous Patti Cohenour is both a stern yet compassionate Aunt Em and a warmly benevolent presence as Glinda. The Broadway vet brings new vocal richness to the music Arlen wrote for the film's far less vocally capable Billie Burke (aka Mrs. Flo Ziegfeld). Sean G. Griffin is full of blustery charm as Professor Marvel and The Wizard, and in an overdue first appearance at the 5th, Lisa Koch is an intriguing Wicked Witch of the West/Miss Gulch, with a wicked cackle, a jazzy vocal delivery, and a zany way with an add lib. Some minor but noticeable opening night pyrotechnic glitches involving the Wicked Witch, may have contributed to a certain lack of menace in Koch's characterization, but that will undoubtedly be rectified.

The Munchkin chorus is flat-out scene stealing; clearly the cutest tykes this jaded aisle-sitter has seen onstage in a long while. Michael Anania's scenic design is a veritable eyeful, while Gregg Barnes' costumes range from a ravishing gown for Glinda to a rather threadbare Lion suit. Kurt Hylton's sound design was the most successful achievement in a homegrown 5th Avenue show in recent memory. And Toto, too? Yes, last but not least, a big cheer for Toby, the adorable Cairn terrier making his stage debut as Dorothy's best pal.

The Wizard of Oz runs through December 21 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. For tickets ($18-64) call (206) 292-ARTS or visit Ticketmaster online at www.ticketmaster.com. , or in person at any Ticketmaster location or the 5th Avenue Theatre box office.




- David-Edward Hughes



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