“We’re off to see the wizard!”

Children of all ages (and that means parents and grandparents too) will be following the yellow brick road from now until July 27 as Musical Theatre West concludes its 55th season with its very first staging of the L. Frank Baum/MGM classic.

The international success of Wicked (aka “the other Oz musical”) makes the original “W” even more of a box office draw, and while (for me at least) Wizard lacks the emotional wallop that Wicked packs,  it has one enormous plus in its favor. There’ll be hardly an audience member at the Carpenter Center who doesn’t have childhood memories of seeing the Judy Garland blockbuster, and that means everyone from the youngest kindergartner to the oldest great-grandparent who was probably still in grade school when MGM released The Wizard in 1939.

Perhaps the biggest thrill of attending MTW’s excellent production is seeing the movie so lovingly and faithfully brought to stage life, scene by scene.  The first 20 minutes or so are even in black and white! (Kudos to lighting designer Jean-Yves Tessier.)

We first meet Dorothy (Deidre Haren) on Kansas farm where she lives with her Auntie Em (Teri Bibb) and Uncle Henry (A.J. Sullivan) and handymen Hunk, Hickory, and Zeke (John Bisom, Todd Neilsen, and John Massey).  There’s also Toto (Impy), Dorothy’s adorable but mischievous pooch, and Dorothy’s nemesis, the mean old Miss Gulch (Natalie Nucci).  When Miss Gulch threatens to have Toto put down, Dorothy runs away, Toto in tow, and meets Professor Marvel (Nils Anderson), whose “vision” of a weeping Auntie Em sends Dorothy on her way back home until a cyclone …

You know the rest.

Before you can say “munchkin,” Dorothy is in the Technicolor Land of Oz, where everyone seems to remind Dorothy of home.  Welcomed by Glinda (Bibb again), Dorothy makes the acquaintance of three incomplete souls (a Scarecrow without a brain, a Tin Man without a heart, and a Lion without courage) who happen to look just like Hunk, Hickory, and Zeke (no wonder, as they’re played by Bisom, Neilsen, and Massey).  Miss Gulch (Nucci) is there too, only now she’s the Wicked Witch Of The West, Uncle Henry (Sullivan) is the Winkie General, and Professor Marvel (Anderson) is the reputedly marvelous Wizard.

Unlike the movie-to-Broadway Disney shows (The Lion King, Beauty And The Beast, etc.), The Wizard Of Oz on stage sticks with only those songs featured in the movie (plus the deleted “Jitterbug”), so there’s considerable less singing here than in the average musical, but every song (music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg) holds a special place in audience memories and hearts. “If I Only Had A Brain” and its reprises as “If I Only Had a Heart” and “If I Only Had The Nerve” are great showcases for the terrific trio of MTW favorites who perform them, and Haren’s “Over The Rainbow” is sung with breathtaking simplicity. Musical director Jeff Rizzo leads a Broadway-ready orchestra, who scarcely get a break during the show’s two and a half hour running time as most of The Wizard is underscored with Herbert Stothart’s memorable background music.

Director Shauna Markey knows Oz well, having appeared in the 1998 National Tour opposite Mickey Rooney and Eartha Kitt, and directed and/or choreographed numerous productions since then. Markey is a w(h)iz at managing her cast of 40, a daunting task in and of itself, and she scores additional points for encouraging her cast to pay homage to the brilliant performers who starred in the movie while making the parts their own.  Nucci is deliciously wicked, Bibb sings gloriously, Neilsen is all heart, Bisom appears truly to be made of straw, and Massey roars with the best of sissies. Anderson is marvelously blustering, Sullivan suitably crusty, and Impy steals every scene she’s in.  Finally, there is the lovely Miss Haren, a UC Irvine student, who captures all of Dorothy’s innocence and pluck.

Markey does double duty as choreographer, skillfully recreating Jamie Rocco’s original steps.  The many children in the cast deserve special credit for being such adept dancers, and the adult ensemble get quite a workout as the “Jitterbugs,” a fun number that’s a special treat because of having been cut from the movie and therefore coming as a delightful surprise.

The gorgeous costumes, loving recreations of the movie originals, are uncredited as is the excellent set design.  Performer Sullivan gets extra points for training the impish Impy. ZFX Flying Effects provide the flying, and a lot of that there is!

Executive Director/Producer Paul Garman reports that The Wizard Of Oz is MTW’s most expensive show ever.  Fortunately, it’s also one that’s likely to sell out for the rest of its run, not merely because of its name value, but because it has been so lovingly and adeptly put together. My best advice for kids of all ages is to follow the Yellow Brick Road to Long Beach for some memorable family fun.

Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
July 12, 2008
Photos: Ambrose Martin

Comments are closed.