BWW Reviews: Tricky New WIZARD OF OZ Storms Into the OC
The last time Southern California audiences got a full sampling of the "all new" stage adaptation of THE WIZARD OF OZ---spearheaded by Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Jeremy Sams---it was during its North American tour stop at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood last autumn. During my first taste of the show (which I reviewed here), I was certainly wowed by its technical wizardry and its talented cast, but was sadly underwhelmed by how much of the original film's stirring, emotional magic and innocent fantasy had been stripped away in favor of easy, high-camp laughs, dazzling onstage visual effects, and head-scratching staging choices.
While I appreciate the amount of bravery and creativity required to mount such an undertaking---that not only tries to honor its source material but also tries to reinvent it for a new generation---the whole enterprise itself is, unfortunately, that much more susceptible to scrutiny. Unfair or not, it's difficult not to compare anything that carries the OZ title against the beloved 1939 MGM Classic that entertained gazillions for decades. Even the show's program blatantly states that this show is both an adaptation of L. Frank Baum's book and based on the Turner Entertainment/Warner Brothers-owned movie.
Arguably, the songs, images, and nuances of that superb film are so deeply imbedded in our collective brains that any kind of deviation attempted by a new revival or production better be a damn, effing good one. That's truly a lot to live up to---and, regrettably, this new OZ doesn't quite reach over the rainbow.
I think perhaps a small part of me had hoped that a few alterations have been enacted into the tour now that it has arrived an hour south in Costa Mesa months since that L.A. premiere. Alas, no.... the very same show (except for a cast change or two) is now playing at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts through February 23.
Just to be clear, this new OZ is hardly a dud. For all its exposed flaws, narrative speedbumps, and curiously added or altered sequences, this production certainly holds your attention for its entire running time.
Much of it is genuinely entertaining---particularly for the youngest ones in the audience---and many of the new, self-aware dialogue is amusing to a point (though I still feel that the newly over-effeminate Cowardly Lion, who all but comes out of the closet, pretty much still straddles a fine line between clichéd haha and offensive stereotype; the single punchline joke really overstays its welcome). This new millennial OZ, you'll notice quickly, wants to be more snarky and meta than your parents' OZ, that's for sure.
So to ensure its entertainment value, there's also plenty of dizzying eye-candy to stimulate the senses---very much what you would expect from a Webber production. The computer-animated sequences and projections alone are mesmerizing, especially for displaying what seems impossible to showcase on a musical theater stage. It's a technique the show relies on quite a lot.
And perhaps because this new production exists in a post-WICKED world, one can't help but see that Broadway blockbuster's influence on this adaptation, too (perhaps in an attempt to piggy-back on that hit show's formula). Farm gal Dorothy (the beautifully-voiced Danielle Wade) is seen as less a whiny adolescent but more of a smart, misunderstood dreamer with slight "activist" tendencies. Glinda the Good (Robin Evan Willis) is much sassier and perkier than previous portrayals (aside from the Glinda in WICKED, that is).
Meanwhile the Wicked Witch (the delightfully over-the-top Jacquelyn Piro Donovan) is more sarcastic and sex-ified, and with a touch more Mean Girl in her. Her textured black dress even screams Act Two Elphaba! But perhaps the most telling of all: the audience's first glance at this show's version of Emerald City. As soon as you see it, only one thing will enter your head: the song "One Short Day." This OZ's idea of Emerald City is so similar to WICKED's that the only thing missing from "The Merry Old Land of Oz" is a trip for the gang to Wiz-O-Mania, for goodness sakes!
As for Dorothy's yellow brick road pals, they too get makeovers to mixed results. The scarecrow (the super adorkable Jamie McKnight) is a cute-but-forgetful dimwit, increasingly childish the more he can't remember details. As I mentioned earlier, the Cowardly Lion (good sport Lee MacDougall) is suddenly a hairy Paul Lynde-type that declares how proud he is to be a "friend of Dorothy" (get it?) And poor Tin Man (Mike Jackson) is so overshadowed by his two over-the-top comrades that he literally becomes an invisible slab of metal sometimes (but his tap-dancing prowess and sexy baritone pipes kick ass). If anything, watching this new OZ is witnessing some great talent making the most of the material they're handed. Only the Wizard, here played endearingly by Jay Brazeau, and Toto (yes, Dorothy's trusty pet, played onstage by a scene-stealing real live pup) remains closely tied to its origins.
So what's not so great? Well, aside from the forgettable albeit serviceable new tunes contributed by Webber and lyricist Tim Rice that are meant to co-mingle with the well-known masterpieces written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, there is also the less-than-colorful, not-so-joyful new Munchkinland sequence (why the production chose to dress the Munchkins in a drab blue palette still perplexes me), the chaotic opener set to "Nobody Understands Me," and the strange and unnecessary new dance number ("Bacchanalia") at the Witch's castle.
But perhaps the show's biggest offense is how it muddles the film's built-in innocence and soulful wonder in its journey from the screen to the stage by peppering it with large doses of cartoonish camp. Of all the things to refresh in THE WIZARD OF OZ, its narrative mechanism isn't it. A big part of me believes this is what's impeding this production from becoming the enthused, adored stage musical it deserves to be.
But thank goodness little kids and not-so-finicky adults are gonna love this anyway. They couldn't be happier.
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Photos by Cylla Von Tiedemann, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Top: the Scarecrow (Jamie McKnight), the Cowardly Lion (Lee MacDougall), and the Tin Man (Mike Jackson); Dorothy (Danielle Wade) holds on to Toto in dusty Kansas.
Performances of THE WIZARD OF OZ continues at Segerstrom Center for the Arts through Sunday, February 23. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.