The beloved characters of L. Frank Baum, the iconic songs of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, the musical gifts of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the spectacular creations of a world-class design team, and the contemporary sensibility that has helped make Wicked a blockbuster international smash—all of these combine to give Southland audiences the fabulous hybrid that is the North American Tour of the 2011 London Palladium production of The Wizard Of Oz, now playing at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts.

Wizard of Oz, Mirvish Productions Toronto Now before you go saying, “I’ve seen The Wizard Of Oz on stage before,” let me assure you that so much of this latest musical adaptation is fresh and new that even those like this reviewer who’ve caught regional stagings of an earlier adaptation will in no way feel they’ve “been there, done that.” Lloyd Webber and Jerry Sams’ smart and sassy adaptation is in a class by itself.

Not surprisingly, Lloyd Webber and company have made sure to keep in every one of the song standards introduced in the 1939 MGM Technicolor classic, including “Over The Rainbow,” “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead!”, and “If I Only Had A Brain/A Heart/The Nerve,” but as this reviewer pointed out in writing about a pair of previous regional productions, the Judy Garland movie masterpiece doesn’t actually have all that many songs in it, which has till now meant plenty of “underscoring” where you’d expect songs to be.

Wizard of Oz, Mirvish Productions Toronto For that reason, composer Lloyd Webber and lyricist Rice have added a bunch of new tunes, giving Professor Marvel, The Wizard, Wicked Witch Of The West, and Glinda each their own showstopper, and if (as in previous movie-to-stage adaptations like Seven Brides and Mary Poppins) there seems to be a disconnect between old songs and new, chalk that up as par for the course when two such distinctive tunesmiths as Arlen and Lloyd Webber are juxtaposed. Truth be told, other than the pop charts-ready “Already Home,” none of ALW’s new songs are likely to have anywhere near the shelf life of the movie’s standards, but they serve their purpose, helping to give audiences a fully realized, Broadway-caliber musical with a Cast Recording’s-worth of songs.

Plotwise, Lloyd Webber and Sams stick pretty much scene by scene to the movie’s storyline. What makes this Wizard Of Oz stand out, and makes it competitive with say Wicked, Beauty And The Beast, and Mary Poppins The Musical, is the contemporary sensibility the show’s creative team have brought to its book. Take for instance, Cowardly Lion’s remarkable ability to find just the right song or movie title to “highlight the moment,” whether it’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” when he feels like a poppy-induced nap, or “A Lion In Winter” when snow starts falling on the poppies. And how about Lion’s declaration upon arriving in Oz that this self-proclaimed “sissy” is “proud to be a friend of Dorothy.” Absolutely priceless, as are the reactions of Lion and Tin Man when Dorothy tells Scarecrow, “I think I’m going to miss you most of all.” (The nerve of her!) Adults who may have found the dialog in previous Wizards “of another era” will find much to rejoice about in this more with-it adaptation.

Wizard of Oz, Mirvish Productions Toronto As for this Wizard Of Oz’s look, suffice it to say that Robert Jones’ scenic and costume designs are spectacularly gorgeous, supremely imaginative, and made even more splendiferous by lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, with Jon Driscoll’s video/projection designs (recreated by Daniel Brodie) earning their own cheers in the cyclone sequence and numerous others. And rather than opting simply to recreate the look of the MGM original, Jones and his team know when to stick close to the tried-and-true (Dorothy’s dress and the look of her three yellow-brick-road companions) and when to do their own thing, which is most of the rest of the time.

Wizard of Oz, Mirvish Productions Toronto I can’t rave more enthusiastically about the stellar performances of the North American Tour’s Canadian cast under the assured direction of Jeremy Sams, headed by the exquisite Danielle Wade, an absolutely enchanting, golden-throated Dorothy, with Jay Brazeau (a Scenie-winning Tevye at the Rubicon Theatre in 2009) a delight in the top-billed but featured roles of Professor Marvel/The Wizard. As for the tremendous trio of Jamie McKnight’s Scarecrow, Lee MacDougall’s Lion, and Mike Jackson’s Tin Man, they could hardly be more memorably created or delightfully executed. (Note how dialog and costumes, MacDougall’s in particular, provide the power of suggestion that might explain some of Dorothy’s “dream,” should you happen to believe in that Wizard Of Oz theory.)

Wizard of Oz, Mirvish Productions Toronto Robin Evan Willis makes for a glorious Glinda and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan has an absolute field day as Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch Of The West, both actresses benefitting from their beefed-up roles and the vocal showcases Lloyd Webber has given them.

Larry Mannell and Chelsey Duplak have just the right folksy touch to bring Uncle Henry and Auntie Em to life, and as for Toto, furry friend Nigel is pure perfection in the canine role.

Last but not least, and disproving the notion that the USA has a lock on supremely talented triple-threats, how about The Wizard Of Oz’s Canadian A-team, performing countless tracks and executing Arlene Philips’ exciting, energetic choreography to perfection. A great big United States welcome to Jordan Bell, John Edwards, Kelly Grainger, Jason Huska, Julia Juhas, Zak Kearns, Anthony MacPherson, Stewart Adam McKensy, Julia McLellan, Briana Palmer, Kristen Pottle, Alana Randall, Adam Sergison, Amanda Struthmann, Andrew Taylor, Devon Tullock, Jesse Weafer, Ryan Wilson, and Alyson Workman. (Though the London Palladium cast recording features child Munchkins, the National Tour makes them full-sized adults, for obvious, practical reasons.)

Also meriting a big round of applause is the symphonic sounding pit orchestra, a blend of touring and local musicians under the baton of music director David Andrews Rogers, with sound designer Mick Potter making them and the cast of The Wizard Of Oz sound even better. Kudos too to production stage manager Michael McGoff, stage manager Kate McDoniel, assistant stage manager Kathleen Harrison, and the rest of the Wizard Of Oz team.

Wizard of Oz, Mirvish Productions Toronto Now I’m sure that there are those who will opine that Sir Andrew ought to have hewn to the adage that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and true, there wasn’t anything particularly “broke” about the pair Wizard Of Oz productions that played locally in 2008 and 2011.

Still, as far as this reviewer is concerned, where a third regional Wizard Of Oz might have left me yawning, such is absolutely not the case at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts. Ask me how I felt about last night’s performance and three words will suffice:

Over The Rainbow!

Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
February 12, 2014
Photos: Cylla Von Tiedemann

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