The Wizard of Oz

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Editorial Review

This 'Oz' Needs More Click to Its Heels

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, Dec. 4, 2008

The Kansas tornado, the sinister flying monkeys, the melting Wicked Witch -- those are the elements you want rendered well in a stage version of "The Wizard of Oz," right?

The team behind the touring version at the Warner Theatre this week seems to think so, for that's what it handles rather well. The musical is based on a 1987 adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company, so you expect this knockoff to have at least a bit of know-how and integrity.

It does, despite the fact that it initially looks like a wan, video-driven rip-off of the beloved 1939 film. Dorothy skitters onstage against a sepia-toned projected backdrop, and the heart sinks at the prospect of live actors mimicking the film in front of an empty cinematic prairie vista.

But the video, with its creepy leafless trees flinching occasionally like something out of an early Tim Burton project, snaps to life with a tornado sequence that's unexpectedly hypnotic. The swirl envelops the stage and debris fills two screens as Miss Gulch turns into a witch; director Nigel West knows where the essential set pieces are, and the show's approaches generally aren't bad.

The acting is another matter, for West and the cast lack the nerve (or "noive," as the Lion says) to do anything other than imitate the movie's stars as precisely as they can. For the munchkins in the audience, this may be a good thing, and the "Oz"-loving parents might prefer it this way, too. Jason Simon's Cowardly Lion is, well, Bert Lahr's, Noah Aberlin flops around Ray Bolger-like as the Scarecrow, and so on. These generally well-sung performances are meant to be familiar, not fresh.

Pat Sibley takes the impersonation cake for her dead-on Margaret Hamilton as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West, though the terrier onstage Tuesday night gets honorable mention as the well-behaved Toto. The exception to the MGM pattern is Cassie Okenka, who plays Dorothy younger than Judy Garland did and shouts a lot. She and the small orchestra also deliver a mechanical version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," another reason the show gets off to a slow start.

It really only perks up when it's solving technical puzzles. John Kane's adaptation includes material cut from the movie -- the "Jitterbug" number as the Witch exhausts Dorothy and her pals is perhaps the most famous -- but the allure isn't in the singing and dancing, but in the clever way the dancers' costumes flip from red to white as the curse is reversed. The Tin Man's hat toots and blows steam during "If I Only Had a Heart," Glinda glides down in a bubble, the Wicked Witch throws fireballs -- these tricks are niftily done, and the sound effects are uncommonly good and perfectly timed.

The Oz set is colorful but flat, though, and the Wizard's flimflam throne room does all the right hissing and rumbling but looks like a cheap figurehead from a local amusement park. By Broadway standards the show is only an okay spectacle, yet you still go home checking off all the technique, a little impressed but utterly dry-eyed and unmoved by Dorothy and her quest. If it only had a heart ...

The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. Adapted by John Kane; music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Choreography, Leigh Constantine; set and costumes, Tim McQuillen-Wright; lights, Bob Bonniol; sound design, Shannon Slaton. About two and a half hours. With Caitlin Maloney, Bruce Warren, Chris Kind, Jason Simon, Robert John Biedermann, Brian Bailey, K.C. Leiber, Tommy Martinez, Taylor Hilt Mitchell, Lauren Patton, Sarah Stevens, Robert Conte, Beau Hutchings, Timothy McNeill, Lauryn Ciardullo, Jessa Rose, Sara Ruzicka, and J. Ryan Carroll.