Theater Review: 'The Wizard of Oz' retains its wide-eyed wonder

For the News-DemocratMay 15, 2014 

A vibrant spectacle on stage, the new touring production of "The Wizard of Oz" amplifies the charm of the beloved classic while intensifying the challenges our cherished characters face.

Lucky for the little ones sporting their glittery ruby slippers, the show caters to families by not messing too much with the source material, both L. Frank Baum's book and the MGM movie musical.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have added eight new songs, with the best being a climactic ballad, "Already Home," sung by Glinda and Dorothy. Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's revered originals, and the lush Oscar-winning movie score is executed with flair by music director/conductor David Andrews Rogers and at least a dozen musicians in the orchestra pit.

The young girl's journey down the yellow brick road retains its wide-eyed wonder, enhanced by the vintage beauty of scenic designer Robert Jones' colorful storybook set and video/projection designer Jon Driscoll's eye-popping visual effects.

Using screen projection for maximum effect, the twister is a jaw-dropping marvel, and the haunted forest is very creepy. Those flying monkeys are still terrifying, magnified through sight and sound.

Integrating new technology with the familiar story sets it apart from previous efforts. The original stage musical has always been limited because many of the movie's magical moments were impossible to duplicate in live theater. And every attempt has paled next to the treasured film, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

This version has been carefully crafted to maximize entertainment value, and it's an admirable effort overall, although some character choices bewilder. With such popular variations as "Wicked" and "The Wiz" pleasing today's audiences, the creative team was freer to re-imagine the show.

Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and the Wicked Witch of the West, are now mirror images, exaggerated caricatures -- with a conspicuous nod to the "Wicked" personalities. They each sing, and dazzle in sparkling gowns (the program notes that Swarovski Elements were used in costumes).

Jacquelyn Piro Donovan portrays the archetypal villainess more like a haughty mean girl than pure evil, and that decision isn't as effective as the fearsome fixture that's been a standard since our youth.

I had the same reaction to Lee MacDougall as a less bombastic Cowardly Lion, tossing off double-entendres as a proud Friend of Dorothy. His other two chums, spry Jamie McKnight as the ditzy Scarecrow and appealing Mike Jackson as the steadfast Tin Man, fared much better.

Danielle Wade is a winsome Dorothy, showcasing powerful pipes in "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and sincerely interacting with her cohorts. She also had her hands full plying a chubby Toto with treats to keep him well-behaved.

The dual role of The Wizard/Professor Marvel has been beefed up here, with hammy Jay Brazeau solid in his three songs, "Wonders of the World," "Bring Me the Broomstick," and "Farewell to Oz."

The ensemble excels in the opulent Emerald City scenes, and as the enslaved Winkies. A highlight is the very clever choreography to "Hail! Hail! The Witch is Dead!", reminiscent of "Stomp." But as adult Munchkins in monochromatic costumes, not so much. "Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead!" didn't radiate with the same joy as we expect.

The reliable focus on home is where the heart is remains the show's guiding light. After all, there is no place like home. "The Wizard of Oz" enjoys a special place in pop culture lore, and endures because of our kinship with the characters and our deep connection to the fantasy. This shiny bauble reminds us of why we have always been fond of it.

"The Wizard of Oz"

When: today through Sunday

Where: The Fox Theatre, 517 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis

Tickets: www.fabulousfox.com or Metrotix: 314-534-1111

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