BWW Reviews: THE WIZARD OF OZ at Surflight Theatre
"You're nothing but a humbug," Scrooge says to Marley's Ghost in the seasonal chestnut A CHRISTMAS CAROL. That same accusation is also hurled at the recently debunked Wizard by reluctant runaway Dorothy Gale in THE WIZARD OF OZ, a holiday classic in the making now delighting audiences at Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven. While WIZARD may seem like an atypical choice for a holiday offering, such family-friendly fare is commonplace in Great Britain, where they annually present traditional tales to lure families to theatrical stages nationwide.
The reason THE WIZARD OF OZ is so comfortingly familiar is not due to its 1900 source material. Nor can it be attributed the Broadway musical extravaganza, which played nearly 500 performances from 1903 to 1905. It was the 1939 feature film starring Judy Garland that defined the story for generations, mostly through its annual airings on television. Although stage adaptations of the story were common, in 1987 Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) set out to create a new version that would stay as close to the best-loved film as possible, while also creating a holiday classic in the style of PETER PAN. It is this adaptation that Surflight is currently offering. Ironically, while Surflight audiences are enjoying OZ on stage this week, America will be watching PAN on television, the very medium that popularized WIZARD.
The RSC added material not found in the film, such as the musical introduction to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," originally written for the thriving sheet music market of the time. There are also some scripted embellishments that help us understand the origins of Dorothy's iconic yellow brick road traveling companions; the Scarecrow (Timothy J. Allen), the Tin Woodsman (Will Sevedge), and the Cowardly Lion (John H. Thyen). This version even gives us the 411 on how the Winkies, the Wicked Witch's guards, came to be enslaved. Appealing to all ages, Kane also gives us new dialogue for the adults in the audience. When the Wicked Witch arrives in Munchkinland, the famous image of her sister's legs sticking out from under Dorothy's farmhouse causes the her to quip "Who else would wear ruby slippers with those socks?" The Witch, gamely played by Kathryn Kendall, actually has quite a bit more to say than in the film, but what she doesn't get is a song - something Andrew Lloyd Webber remedied with his recent adaptation, a version that just concluded a North American tour. While Kendall might not frighten the wee ones with her wickedness, she nails the character's shrill cackle, an absolute must for anyone donning the trademark pointy hat and green greasepaint.
In more adventurous additions, the production features singing and dancing crows ("Caw caw!") and apple trees ("Time we boughed out!") brought to life by Ziegfeldian dancers, a concept that might take some getting used to by more literal minded film fans. Surflight's staging is visually impressive, with the Kansas dust bowl fittingly rendered in sepia tones and the Land of Oz in glorious technicolor, right down to Dorothy's blue gingham dress. Speaking of which, the success of any production of WIZARD can be directly traced to its Dorothy and in that regard, Surflight excels. At just 14, Emma Howard is one of the youngest professionals to play the role. Direct from the Broadway companies of MATILDA and VIOLET, Howard sensitively renders the show's power ballad and presents a wide-eyed portal for audiences to experience life over the rainbow. Along for the ride is Layla as Toto, one of the most remarkably focused canines ever to trot the boards! As usual, the Surflight ensemble is uniformly excellent, with scene stealers Jessica Foster (Munchkin Mayor) and James Young (Uncle Henry / Emerald City Guard) really standing out from the colorful crowd.
The highlight of Surflight's wonderful WIZARD OF OZ comes at the top of Act Two with "The Merry Old Land of Oz." The energetic emerald-tinted ensemble indulges in a full-out production number (smartly staged by Matt Williams) that grandly celebrates the show's inherent theatricality. The number is the perfect coalescence of singing, dancing and general rejoycifying (to speak in the vernacular of the Ozians). It also manages to neatly showcase our newly refurbished foursome in preparation for their impending audience with the Wizard.
Director Karen Carpenter mercifully manages to steer her performers away from imitations of the film stars - a no-win situation in light of the fact that the movie was tailored to the talents of its inimitable cast. Surflight's production design is often startlingly impressive. With the aid of state-of-the-art projections, the view from Dorothy's tornado-torn farmhouse window as well as the flame-enrobed disembodied head of the Wizard are just two of the show's most jaw-droppingly visual moments. However, the technical demands of recreating a fantasy film live on stage can prove daunting, to say the least. On opening night some scenic transitions were about as bumpy as a house caught in a cyclone, but I have a feeling that by the time you read this they will be as smooth as a hot air balloon ride over the rainbow. THE WIZARD OF OZ is a classic musical celebration of color and spectacle that might well become a new holiday tradition at Surflight - and that's no humbug!
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THE WIZARD OF OZ performs through December 21st at Suflight Theatre, 201 Engleside Avenue, Beach Haven, New Jersey. For tickets or information, call 609-492-9477 or visit www.suflight.org