Danielle Wade as Dorothy, Jamie McKnight as Scarecrow, Lee MacDougall as Lion, Mike Jackson as Tin Man. Photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann

'Oz' Could Use More Imagination

By Jenn McKee

Theater magic and movie magic are, intrinsically, very different animals - perhaps one's a cowardly lion, and one's a flying monkey? - so this may be part of the reason why Andrew Lloyd Webber's and Jeremy Sams' stage musical adaptation of the classic film "The Wizard of Oz" never quite achieves either one.

For while it's both seductive and daunting to tackle a timeless, beloved classic film property like "Wizard" - generations upon generations have swooned over it and will likely flock, albeit with highly specific expectations, to experience the story again in a different medium - Webber's and Tim Rice's limp, uninspiring additional songs look all the more pale alongside Harold Arlen (music) and E.Y. Harburg (lyrics) brilliant original songs from the 1939 film; and most of the big-scale, over-the-top bells and whistles that aim to transport you mostly make you wish that a few more subtle and more creative production choices had left some things to the imagination.

Admittedly, "Wizard" aims to be a kids' show (in part, anyway), and a splashy musical to boot - not normally genres rooted in subtlety - but with a running time of nearly two and a half hours, "Wizard" feels like a slog.

The show also feels like a piece that's desperately trying to straddle the worlds of film and theater, given its propensity for video and projections (designed by Jon Driscoll). Some work well - the spooky depiction of the Wizard (Jay Brazeau), for instance, and an eerie flock of flying monkeys - but you can't help but feel that the production team relies way too heavily on these elements as a solution to every narrative challenge "Wizard" throws at them.

And there are challenges (numerous locales with strikingly different backdrops, to name one). But one thing certainly working in the show's favor is Danielle Wade, who provides enough pluck and sincerity - plus a dash of Judy Garland's inflections - to make Dorothy both familiar and fresh. Also, her vocals are terrific, though she noticeably struggled to catch her breath following some particularly taxing "We're Off to See the Wizard" choreography (designed by Arlene Philips).

Generally Philips' choreography works best with the ensemble numbers, but like the self-conscious "more is more" sensibility that Sams, as the production's director, applies to the whole show, Philips occasionally overplays things (also, see Wade's endless final note on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow").

Costume and scenic designer Robert Jones, working in conjunction with lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, make the opening scenes in Kansas look drab and washed out without going too overtly for the black-and-white portion of the film. (Added songs "Nobody Understands Me" and "Wonders of the World" make for a slow start, but design-wise, I thought the production choices in the early going were good.)

I took my 6 year old to "Wizard," and while she intermittently grew bored, she loved seeing the witch (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan) melt - she had been anticipating this all evening - and she laughed at a few of the cornball jokes that weren't aimed over her head (like "The lion sleeps tonight!" in the poppy field, and "Look! I'm a lion in winter!" when it begins to snow.) And the broad range of adult "Wizard" fans in the crowd generally seemed to enjoy the spectacle.

But I left unsatisfied. For although the film version of "Wizard" evokes an emotional response in me every time I watch it, this adaptation - which has a final "surprise" that feels shallow and unearned - just left me wondering if I shared something in common with the Tin Man, since I didn't feel much of anything at all.


'The Wizard of Oz'

Broadway in Detroit at Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway St., Detroit. Tuesday-Sunday through June 29. $24-79. 313-237-SING. http://www.broadwayindetroit.com

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