4/17/2022 THE WIZARD OF OZ Atlanta Lyric Theatre
NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar—except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.
Thus begins L. Frank Baum’s classic 1900 Book about Dorothy Gale’s adventures in Oz and her quest to return home to that bleak black-and-white farmhouse. We, of course, know it best from the 1939 Hollywood spectacular, broadcast for us Boomers yearly throughout our youth.
But do we really know it?
Gregory Maquire, of course, rethought the story for his 1995 novel, Wicked, and its many sequels. We, of course, know it best from its 2003 musical adaption.
But do we really know it?
I have been privileged over the past three decades to see numerous productions of the 1988 RSC stage adaptation, even designing lighting for one way back when in Pennsylvania (a state. which, truth to tell, is my own private Kansas).
While watching Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s brilliantly performed production, I couldn’t help thinking about the various versions of this story, its suddenly-apparent inconsistencies, and the choices made in its many incarnations. You see, while this is a stellar cast hitting all the right notes, the design and direction was singular unappealing to me, and I found myself NOT engaged in the story, wondering why I was not having as much fun as the rest of the audience.
Like other productions, this one faithfully recreates the movie we’ve all seen and loved, hitting all the expected moments and songs, and driving the audience to its feet at its conclusion. Yet rather than my normal response of nostalgic satisfaction, it left me glad to finally go home. With my spouse happily enjoying her career as a Spirit Airline Sky-Dancer, my daughter out of the nest and joyfully independent in the Big Apple, home is just a comfy easy-chair with an affectionate canine at my feet, so much better than Dorothy’s one-room farmhouse with an Aunt and Uncle who, for all intents and purposes, display the love and care usually reserved for an acre to be plowed or a fence to be mended. So, I GET the appeal of home.
I guess I’m just not as convinced that it is Dorothy’s best choice, especially with all the color and friendship and music and vibrant life she experiences in Oz.
This version originally saw life in 1988 in England with the RSC, and part of its appeal was the balancing of our memories of the movie with some moments of stylized stagecraft, not to mention the resurrection of the “Jitterbug” number, shot for the movie but cut in the final release. I always enjoyed the tornado sequence, which usually is a heavily choreographed dance number. Here, though, it was replaced by a cloudy video sequence which retained the lengthy original musical underscore. It felt to me like a movie shoehorned into a stage production. This was repeated at the end when Dorothy “goes home.” In both cases, all the underscoring stretched the sequences out for far too long. Obviously, the time was required for the intense costume and scenery changes required, but wouldn’t that time be better filled by, I don’t know, an ensemble dance sequence? I so missed the dancers!
The spare scenery was backed by an unlit cyclorama which provided a “screen” for the video projections. But, when not in use as that screen, it remained a gloomy grey background which made the miracle of Oz seem gray and depressing. I found it far too difficult to enter into the :magic of the place when it was overwhelmed by this big drab backdrop (though that look was perfect for the opening pre-storm scenes in Kansas).
The direction also did not succeed in “syncing” the projected visuals with the onstage blocking, As an example, before every Glinda entrance, we see a bubble floating across the background, but Glinda always seemed to enter before the bubble reached that side of the stage. As another, when the travelers finally come before the Wizard, he is “played” by a squashed and not-at-all-frightening UPSTAGE image, but our characters face DOWNSTAGE when talking to him. (The less said about the sound design that distorted his voice to total incomprehensibility, the better.) The Wizard’s final exit is especially disjointed as his balloon lifts into the air as his platform is pushed off stage.
All in all, the video quality was that of a Computer screen in dim “power save” mode.
So, because I was so unengaged, I kept nitpicking details of the script itself in my mind. The same song reprised as Dorothy meets each of her travelling companions begins to get old. “If I Were King of Forest” stops the story dead just when we want it to get moving. “The Jitterbug” is also out of place and obviously earned its deletion from the original movie (and, for the record, the witch refers to A (singular) Jitterbug, but the number as choreographed features a veritable army of Jitterbugs. And, for the final scene, why is everyone searching for Dorothy everywhere EXCEPT in the house itself?
But this is still The Wizard of Oz, and this cast brings these characters to life, and then some. Meg Young is simply dazzling as Dorothy, keeping that childlike quality of naive acceptance and wonder even as she sings to the rafters with a perfect Broadway belt. As her companions, Joe Arnotti (Scarecrow), Kendrick Taj Stephens (Tin Man), and Blake Fountain (Lion) bring moments and mannerisms that drive all previous incarnations of these characters into deep storage, Jaymyria Etienne and Spencer Stephens are suitably warm as Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, and Jeff McKerley is perfectly cast and makes every moment count as Professor Marvel and the Wizard (Distorted voice-overs notwithstanding)**. A dynamic ensemble fills the streets of the Emerald City and the halls of the Winkie Castle with skill and aplomb, and an insanely talented “youth ensemble” populates Munchkinland and the Flying Monkey Army with adorable talent and energy.
So, despite my (apparently many) carps and gripes and nits (oh my), this is a crowd-pleaser of a show, driven primarily by the cast. As said above, this is still The Wizard of Oz. Yes, Wicked (and Gregory Maguire’s subsequent Oz books) have forever changed our perception of Baum’s world, and it’s impossible to even watch the movie without all those post-Elphaba filters on. But to me this is still a magic-filled adventure for kids of all ages. It still drives home the idea that all of us yearn for something just out of reach, yearn for that home we have to eventually leave (no matter how little it has to offer), yearn for that security that family and friends never fail to provide.
And watching this story in any form, in any version, evokes those childhood memories of sitting around the black-and-white TV set with a bowl of popcorn, some siblings (who never seemed to shut up) and Mom and Dad anchoring us all to the wonderful world that maturity and responsibility have left back on the other side of the rainbow.
This production may have occasionally strayed from the yellow brick road, but it always found its way back, and took me most of the way to Oz.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #altWizardOfOZ)
** Bias Alert – I have worked with Spencer Stephens, Blake. Fountain, and ensemble member Parker Ossman, and have become friends with Jeff McKerley and tend to view ALL their work through approval-tinted glasses,