A children's pop-up book sprung to life, "The Wizard of Oz" is a visually splendid swirl of magic and wonder as the 98th season opener at The Muny.
Originally commissioned for The Munipal Opera after the 1939 film's success, the musical's roots are honored with a literate interpretation befitting a theatrical touchstone. Since "The Wizard of Oz" premiered on the outdoor stage in 1942, it has been performed 11 more times.
This 12th rendition is a charmer — full of good cheer, warmth and heart.
What I especially liked is that we didn't get the typical spectacle add-ins so prevalent in current family entertainment — you know, that overwhelming fast-paced, loud barrage on your senses.
There is stunning razzle-dazzle — a flying balloon, floating bubble carriage, melting witch and menacing smoke and fire, but the special effects don't overtake the universal story of family and friendship.
People have seen the movie countless times and the musical is a staple of school and community theater. Because the show is evergreen and familiar, that's another challenge. So how to revitalize an old chestnut?
The ingenious Muny collaborators and director John Tartaglia, a very special talent ("Sesame Street," "Avenue Q," "Shrek"), put their unmistakable imprint on Dorothy's adventures.
Tartaglia and his team don't reinvent the L. Frank Baum "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" novel, so much as reconstitute it, highlighting what makes the characters so beloved, the story so timeless, and the fantasy world so enchanting.
The humor is gentle, the dark parts are realistic, and the characters aren't over-the-top caricatures in this 2016 version that evokes pleasant childhood memories and a simpler, slower time.
Appealing Danielle Bowen displays the same vulnerability that Judy Garland imbued Dorothy with, and captivated with her plucky resourcefulness and strength. Her touching, wistful "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was everything you want and expect it to be.
The merry band of brothers — Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion — is genuinely conveyed by spry Kevin Cahoon as the nimble stuffed Scarecrow, Nicholas Rodriguez as the kind Tin Man, and Stephen Wallem as the comical Cowardly Lion.
Rodriguez, whether he's covered up as The Beast or uncovered as Tarzan, always makes an impression, so at ease is he on the Muny stage. Wallem has played iconic characters before — Shrek and Horton the Elephant — so it's no surprise he fits the King of the Forest role. Cahoon is a delightful, expressive Scarecrow.
Leah Berry is a shimmering pink confection as sweet Glinda the Good Witch while Peggy Roeder is scary-good as the cackling Wicked Witch of the West.
PJ Benjamin, who had a long run as the Wizard in "Wicked," certainly intimidates as the man behind the curtain. Muny veterans Lynn Humphrey and Rich Pisarkiewicz are likable as Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. The ever-adorable Toto is a rescued Terrier named Dusty that grabbed all 84,000 audience members' hearts.
The crisp and snappy ensemble is colorfully costumed by designer Leon Dobkowski and precise in dance choreographed with panache by Ralph Perkins. Michael Harp. of Swansea. is featured as a Winkie, those formidable guards at the witch's castle.
The Wow Factor ramped up with dancing girl poppies whose skirts shift from bright red to glistening silver-white as Glinda makes snow fall. Dobkowski's vibrant vision turned out truly breathtaking.
And then there's that Flying Monkey ever by the Wicked Witch's side. Those flying monkeys never fail to creep me out, no matter what vehicle. Let's face it, some parts are intense, and you don't forget experiencing it the first time you watch the movie.
Scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan's stunning blend of beautifully rendered vintage drawings with the majesty of Oz provide a dream-like quality while the modern videos on the new LED screen add another dimension.
The cyclone is a marvel of motion. Dorothy's bed is perched atop a gigantic cone while dancers whirl — and a cow twirls — to mimic the storm. When Munchkinland is revealed, it is a twinkly, sugar-dusted enclave of 3-D candy-colored cottages.
The stage production could never duplicate some of the film's memorable moments until now — with the LED screen projecting the poppy field, the frightening "Surrender Dorothy" sky-written message, and the Wizard's imposing floating head, not to mention terrifying Miss Gulch riding on her bicycle. Nathan W. Scheuer's video designs are the best yet.
Tartaglia has breathed new life into the staged show's unique touches, such as using puppets for the crows, putting the jiving jitterbugs in blacklight, and creating some fun with the talking trees.
From the nostalgic overture to the upbeat "Merry Old Land of Oz" choral numbers, Music Director Valerie Gebert takes us on a sentimental journey with plenty of brains, heart and nerve along the way.
So dive in, turn the pages in your mind, and experience pure imagination.
"The Wizard of Oz"
- Where: The Muny in Forest Park
- When: 8:15 nightly through June 22
- Information: www.muny.org or The Muny at 314-361-1900 or MetroTix is 314-534-1111.