Theater review: The Wizard of Oz
By Perry Tannenbaum
So the tandem of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber is on the prowl again. Back in 2011, they decided that the classic 1939 screen musical, The Wizard of Oz, could be freshened up, expanded, and made suitable for the London stage. Or by the looks of Robert Jones’s scenic and costume designs, maybe they thought they could repackage the old L. Frank Baum gem and transform it into a Wicked sequel. The show played the Palladium for just over a year-and-a-half, opened and closed with an all-Canadian cast in Toronto in 2013, and began a nine-month North American tour shortly afterwards.
Now it’s nearing the end of another tour that began in Cleveland back in December. While the production and the whole idea of Webber and Rice mingling with Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg struck me as wild and daring, it’s obvious second thoughts about omissions from the original screenplay and score – not to mention the new songs – have long ago been struck from Lord Webber’s to-do list. And indeed, the current edition at Belk Theater this week is as polished as an emerald.
Yet the Arlen-Harburg “If I Were King of the Forest” is still missing. So it’s pure stubbornness or boneheadedness that accounts for the new creative team clinging – for five years! – to the notion that this wonderfully comical counterbalance to the wishful “Over the Rainbow” isn’t exponentially better than any of the songs they’ve replaced it with. Dear Andrew, if no one else has told you so, let me be the first.
The best of the new songs, “Bring Me the Broomstick,” gives Act 1 a thunderous ending. And the title character should get a song, don’t you think? Trouble is, the Wizard’s directive, sending Dorothy and friends off on their second quest after reaching Emerald City, occurs comparatively late in the movie, after all of its songs have been sung. There’s no remaining original material for Webber and Rice to use in weaving Act 2.
Of course, they write new songs, one of them for the Wicked Witch. The Green One’s “Red Shoes Blues” arguably contains Rice’s wittiest new lyrics, cementing my notion that we’relooking at the Witch through post-Wicked glasses. Similarly, a strain of bimbo conceit will be noticed in Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, replacing the saccharine fairy godmother hatched by MGM.
The new stage script by Webber and Jeremy Sams contrives reprises of “Over the Rainbow” and “If I Only Had a Brain,” with Rice repurposing the latter as “If We Only Had a Plan” when Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow must fend for themselves. Once the Wicked Witch [spoiler alert] is melted, Webber resurrects a song that had been on the cutting room floor for over 70 years as the Witch’s liberated Winkies sing “Hail-Hail! The Witch Is Dead” – a bizarre but delightful production number with nightsticks – reusing the melody from the joyous “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead.”
A subtler leaning toward Wicked may be discerned in Sarah Lasko’s portrayal of Dorothy Gale, more of an adolescent malcontent and less of a pre-pubescent castaway. There’s more wanderlust mixed into the yearning of “Over the Rainbow,” more defiance and less pouting in her confrontations with Lion, Wizard, and the Wicked Witch. The hambone element is dialed down a notch or two in Mark A. Harmon’s portraits of Professor Marvel and The Wizard, both of whom get new songs, yet he’s vivid enough for us to instantly realize that he’s also the officious Gatekeeper when we first arrive in Oz.
I liked Webber’s impulses in gently enhancing the comedy from Scarecrow and Tin Man. Not only are crows unafraid of Adam Vanek as the Man of Straw, they form a puppet trio singing backup in his “If I Only Had a Brain.” Always the most pallid of Dorothy’s friends in the movie, Jay McGill gets to spout flame from Tin Man’s funnel hat and make a variety of rusty and tinny sounds as he moves.
Robbed of his signature song, Aaron Fried must content himself to be the least important musically of Dorothy’s friends as the Cowardly Lion, but he emerges nevertheless as the most potent comedy force. With less innocence and naïveté in the New Millennium Dorothy to hate, Shani Hadjian can’t be nearly as wicked as the Wicked Witch was in the film, but she sells her song, and she’s pretty damn nasty as the implacable Miss Gulch. It’s harder for Rachel Womble to layer on comical notes as Glinda, particularly since designer Jones dresses the Good Witch in glittery midnight blue. You’re asking for trouble when you tamper with Tinkerbell or the Good Witch.
Technically, this Wizard is as advanced as any touring shows we’ve seen. Wonders of the scenery include scrim-filling projections taking us inside the Kansas tornado, a plastic Munchkinland with more color than a bag of Skittles, a swiveling Yellow Brick Road, and an illuminated clock outside the Witch’s Castle that suddenly conveys the pleadings of Uncle Henry and Auntie Em – in quaint black and white – dissolving into the Witch’s diabolical mockery.
Maybe just a notch below what you might expect on Broadway. The stage extravaganza adds about 16 minutes of running time to the movie version, and despite some extra shenanigans from the Lion, I found myself surprisingly moved when Dorothy had to say goodbye to her pals. Webber makes it clearer, when Dorothy wakes up in Kansas, that she really didn’t say goodbye to those cherished friends – a consolation for 2016 audiences that wasn’t necessary in 1939. That’s a shame.