Review: THE WIZARD OF OZ Drops Into Musical Theatre West in Long Beach

MTW revives the charming but now dated 1987 stage adaptation of the 1939 MGM movie musical based on L. Frank Baum's classic story

By: Jul. 14, 2023
Review: THE WIZARD OF OZ Drops Into Musical Theatre West in Long Beach
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Review: THE WIZARD OF OZ Drops Into Musical Theatre West in Long Beach
Leianna Weaver

Highly regarded as one of the most popular films of all time, MGM's classic 1939 big screen movie-musical adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz---which features a memorable star turn by Judy Garland---continues to this day to dazzle generations of children all over the world with its infectious mix of magic, whimsy, and fantasy. 

Naturally, this beloved property seems like a perfect source material for a stage musical, right? 

After a few valiant attempts, it wasn't until 1987 that a stage adaptation became the go-to stage iteration for decades to come. Created by John Kane as commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, this licensed version has been produced all over the world, including high schools and community theaters across the country. 

Lo and behold, this version of THE WIZARD OF OZ---greatly influenced by the film and its music while also incorporating several non-cinematic moments from Baum's original tome---is the version now being staged by Musical Theatre West at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts through July 23, 2023.

Delightfully charming but also now slightly dated, MTW's expectedly family-friendly, colorfully saturated production---here helmed by director Paige Price---is indeed a lovely stage recreation of the movie classic, filled to the brim with instant recalls to the visuals and sounds that generations have long fondly cherished. 

But, curiously, at times---at least during its recent opening night performance---much of the production felt a bit subdued and tamed-down compared to previous iterations I've experienced. Though still overall admirable and entertaining, this particular trip to Emerald City could have used an extra jolt of energy to match its wildly madcap premise. 

Review: THE WIZARD OF OZ Drops Into Musical Theatre West in Long Beach
Erica HanrahanSarah Uriarte Berry, Leianna Weaver

For all intents and purposes, MTW's production checks all the boxes for those looking to see the film expanded for the stage. A relatively faithful recreation of the film---down to the sepia-toned opening scenes set in Kansas versus the dazzling technicolor splendor of Oz, and, yes, the theatrically creative campy-as-heck tornado sequence---the stage show similarly follows the (possibly imagined) fantastical adventures of teenager Dorothy Gale (Leianna Weaver) who unexpectedly journeys to the enchanted land of Oz. 

Restless and longing to escape her hum-drum life on the farm with her caregivers Aunt Em (Sarah Uriarte Berry) and Uncle Henry (Dennis Holland), Dorothy decides to run away from home with her pet dog Toto, as a way to avoid the meddling of their mean, cantankerous neighbor Mrs. Gulch (Erica Hanrahan), who is hell-bent on putting down Toto for allegedly biting her.

But as one would expect of Kansas, a tornado's a-comin'… and with a helpful nudge from a traveling showman she crosses paths with named Professional Marvel (the very funny Jason Graae), Dorothy regrets her spontaneous choice and decides to rush back home.

Unfortunately the twister is en route, and Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and their farmhands Hunk (Erik Scott Romney), Hickory (Michael James), and Zeke (William Hartery) have all retreated to safety of their underground bunker, unable to hear Dorothy when she returns home.

With Toto in hand, Dorothy shelters in the bedroom of the farmhouse, where she gets a bump on the head as the tornado whips through the land. The force of the cyclone has somehow whipped the house from its foundation and sends it flying through the air (or has it?). Interestingly, through the Open Window, Dorothy spots not only flying debris, but also a floating Mrs. Gulch still peddling on her bicycle as if nothing was out of the ordinary. 

Review: THE WIZARD OF OZ Drops Into Musical Theatre West in Long Beach
Jason Graae, Leianna Weaver

But Mrs. Gulch somehow magically transforms into a witch riding a broom, cackling with a piercing laughter. Then soon… crash! 

A dazed and very confused Dorothy emerges from her surprisingly intact house. But the house, she soon discovers, has landed in the middle of a colorful new locale with a pair of legs wearing sparkly ruby red slippers squashed underneath it.

She then meets the sparkly Glinda, the Good Witch (also played by Berry) who arrives via bubble to inform her that she is now in the Land of Oz, and that she is being dubbed a hero for killing the Wicked Witch of the East (the legs sticking out beneath the crashed house), thereby freeing the poor, formerly entrapped Munchkins of Munchkinland. 

Grateful to be rid of their evil captor, the pint-sized Munchkins praise and exalt Dorothy with, naturally, an elaborate musical medley that fans of the movie will instantly recognize. But the celebration is suddenly interrupted with the surprise appearance of the Wicked Witch of the West (also played by the absolutely superb Hanrahan), understandably super angry that this strange farm girl just showed up out of nowhere and straight-up murdered her sister by dropping an entire house on her. To make matters even worse, the Wicked Witch discovers that Dorothy is now wearing her dead sister's magic shoes! 

Angrier than ever, the Wicked Witch once again disappears in a cloud of black smoke, promising to return to enact revenge and retake the shoes later.

With this deadly threat now hanging over her, Dorothy's most pressing goal now is to find a way back home. But how? Glinda nonchalantly suggests she seek out the counsel of the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, who lives in at the capital, Emerald City. 

And thus begins Dorothy's quest down the Yellow Brick Road. Along the way, she is joined one after another by a trio of seemingly discarded misfits who, coincidentally, might each also benefit from a visit with the Wizard: a friendly, not-so-scary Scarecrow (also played by Romney) who wants to get a brain, a formerly rust-frozen Tin Man (also played by James) who desperately wants to get a heart, and a cuddly Cowardly Lion (also played by Hartery) who wants to find some courage. 

Will they all get what they seek from the Wizard? Or will they become the latest tragic victims of the vengeful Wicked Witch?

Filled with endearing nostalgic touchpoints and admirable theatrics, MTW's production of THE WIZARD OF OZ, is primarily an enjoyable one, featuring plenty of amusing sequences, many genuinely lovely and funny moments, and uniformly impressive musical performances from its talented leads. But much of the production also feels rather safe and low-key, only just mildly percolating to reach its potential full zenith of high-energy showmanship. 

While I found myself smiling and laughing for most of the show's running time, I think it feels like a missed opportunity for this new production to not really lean more into its campy qualities nor to at least give a subtle nod to modern day sensibilities that transcends its strict reverence to the source material's past. And, yes, with such familiarity embedded into a popular property like this, a more caffeinated, boisterous vibe would have taken this production over this crest (or perhaps over the rainbow).

As expected, many of the memorable songs from the 1939 film---composed by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg---reappear in this stage version, including ubiquitous tunes like "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead," "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," "We're Off To See The Wizard," and, of course, "Over the Rainbow," here beautifully performed by Weaver, who occasionally even takes on Garland's speaking/singing cadence from the film. 

A song that was cut from the film, "The Jitterbug" is also included here, and, I must say, I am glad it has found renewed life because it proves to be a very welcome, much needed dance number in the second act (choreographed by Jimmy Locust). The movie's familiar score---which now includes new background music by Herbert Stothart---sounds incredible coming from the 18-piece orchestra conducted by musical director Ryan O'Connell (the sound mix, however, could use a bit of fine tuning, balance-wise).

Review: THE WIZARD OF OZ Drops Into Musical Theatre West in Long Beach
William Hartery, Leianna Weaver, Michael James, Erik Scott Romney

Visually, the production has lots of wow moments. The tornado sequence---a cleverly efficient, hodge-podge mixture of flying wirework, sound effects, lighting (by Paul Black), and low-tech projections---is an early first act highlight that will dazzle younger theatergoers. Later, the Wizard's giant "mechanical" face is a striking magical hybrid of the "hologram" from the film and the animatronic robot one we see in productions of the hit OZ prequel musical WICKED. I also loved the surprise appearance (and subsequent reappearances) of the yellow brick road---which I will not spoil its location here for those yet to see the production. 

The sets, though indeed saturated with color, are a mixed bag. David Arsenault's impressively imposing set of the Wicked Witch's castle lair is stunning upon reveal, while his monotone structures for the Gale farmhouse evoke a dustbowl-like aura that is a perfect contrast to the more eye-popping hues of Oz. However, many of the flat structures with child-like art designs and all the painted scenic backdrops meant to evoke the yellow brick road twisting through different locales in the distance might need to be retired, especially when used in extra large theater spaces like the Carpenter Center's Broadway-caliber stage.

Elsewhere, Bradley Allen Lock's costumes on the cast are appropriately fantastical, especially when paired with Therese Levasseur's wig designs and Jeanette Kakuska's artistry with Makeup.

As for the cast, the main foursome of Weaver, Romney, James, and Hartery keeps the show continuously engaging, especially during musical sequences featuring the film's familiar songs. Dorothy's very funny friends, in particular, each have their own solo numbers that provide great musical theater moments: Romney's adorkable, clumsy pratfalls in "If I Only Had A Brain," James' endearing mannerisms in "If I Only Had A Heart," and Hartery's comedy two-fer of "If I Only Had The Nerve" and "If I Were The King of the Forest"… all done in what I can only surmise as a very, very high temperature'd costume.

But the show truly gets livelier and much more caffeinated whenever the show's more mysteriously sinister characters appear: Graae's Wizard and Hanrahan's Wicked Witch. Both excellent in their respective roles, the two instantly make their scenes worth watching. 

Review: THE WIZARD OF OZ Drops Into Musical Theatre West in Long Beach
Erica Hanrahan, Leianna Weaver

Doing great work in all three of his roles, Graae's effortless comedic timing and snarky delivery all feel improvised, even almost subtly winking at the very meta fact that he also played this role in the national tour of WICKED. His turn as the Guard at the entrance of Oz is inspired, while his early appearance as Professor Marvel is at once silly and suspicious but also surprisingly touching. Meanwhile, Hanrahan's scene-stealing, over-the-top performance as Elpha-, er, I mean, the Wicked Witch is just the right antidote for a mostly subdued production. And mad props to Hank, the real canine tasked to play the role of Toto for always hitting his marks and for staying calm and cool while surrounded by the colorful characters of Oz.

A fun, joyous, and entertaining stage show overall---especially for young theatergoers---MTW's THE WIZARD OF OZ is genuinely admirable and impressive, but needs turn up the volume (literally and figuratively) to make it more than just a passive stage recreation of a beloved movie classic. Maybe stop by a Starbucks for some espresso shots while traveling on that yellow brick road?

Follow this reviewer on Twitter / Instagram / Threads: @cre8iveMLQ.

Photos by © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West.

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Performances of Musical Theatre West's production of THE WIZARD OF OZ continue through Sunday, July 23, 2023. The Carpenter Performing Arts Center is located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA. For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.



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