The Wizard of Oz
Broadway Series South
Through May 10
At first blush, an enterprise like The Wizard of Oz seems the kind of marketing slam dunk producers would fairly drool over. With all but universal name recognition and an iconic story and score everyone fondly remembers from childhood, the property is practically the working definition of "family-friendly."
But the hidden perils are also considerable. If a show like this basically clones the beloved 1939 film, it forsakes the element of surprise among the older audience members—and gets critically socked as derivative to boot. On the other hand, if it consciously breaks from that mold, an even greater number of audience members are just as likely to say, "Wait—that's not how it goes."
Then there are the icons themselves from that iconic tale to contend with: the matchless work of Judy Garland and Margaret Hamilton for starters, and the inspired vaudeville of those holy fools Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr. Challenge to the actor: Top those performances—without, of course, the aid of extreme close-ups to magnify every nuance of emotion. Then try to duplicate the opulence of Cedric Gibbons' original cadre of set designers.
There's little doubt these are some of the reasons this professional touring version, based on a 1989 Royal Shakespeare Company production of the show, appears to be fighting a systemic case of cold feet. They played New York—well, for a week and a half—just over a month ago. But, unable to match the film's ostentation, and uncomfortable staking out new territory, this production seems stuck in a predicament: aware of its shortcomings when compared with the original, but in no position to do that much about them.
In all sympathy, I really can't imagine what it would be like to try and update Judy Garland's work as Dorothy. The problem here: Neither, apparently, can director Nigel West and actor Cassie Okenka. Repeatedly, we get the feeling that those eggshells Okenka always seems to be walking on have more to do with her predecessor's legacy than the easily wounded pride of a fictive witch. Jason Simon's take on the Lion is engaging, and some heart emerges from Chris Kind's portrayal of Tinman and Noah Aberlin's reading of the Scarecrow. But spontaneity has largely been factored out of these proceedings. The cast frequently seems too careful—in the worst sense of the word.
Tellingly, the most satisfying moments in this production are departures from the work we know: the schizophrenically suited crows who feast and comment on the Scarecrow's abilities, those Dreamgirl trees in the haunted forest, and even the trippy Munchkinland backdrop that seems to superimpose the Hollywood hills (complete with sign) onto the Land of the Rising Sun.
Even more bizarre, but still visually compelling, was the sequence in which a potentially fatal field of poppies are rendered as a company of classical ballet dancers. (Sleep-inducing ballet? Who ever heard of such a thing?)
This Wizard repeatedly tries—and fails—to marry elements of the film with live action in a multi-media approach. When Dorothy scampers across a completely empty stage at the beginning, while animated computer graphic imagery of a sepia-toned wasteland is projected onto a black backdrop over her head—I'm sorry, but we're not in Kansas anymore. Or much of anywhere else, for that matter: It was the weakest opening of a stage piece I've seen in quite some time.
By the time this production belatedly adds a meager set piece or two to represent Auntie Em and Uncle Henry's farm, the treacherous animation was suggesting footage from The Martian Chronicles instead. I'd swear those weren't exactly sun rays piercing those clouds, and the stunted, stick-like creatures clawing hungrily at the skies above them were anything but trees. Finally, the last time I saw digital animation as cheesy as the footage used in the tornado, Robert Wilson was hijacking BAM for his production of Monsters of Grace. I briefly wondered if the 3-D glasses used in that benighted staging would have made these projected images—or some of the acting—more dimensional.
Stuck firmly in the shadow of its famous forerunner, marred by human interactions that seem as pre-programmed as the computer graphics, and a little too reliant on effects that are entirely too special, this production will likely wow the kids—but leave the older folks a bit more disenchanted.