Theatre Under the Stars has had its way with movies this year, and the results have not been pretty. From the tepid Some Like It Hot to the disastrous Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, the productions have been a long, stinky lesson in what not to do with the flicks we love. Fortunately, TUTS's latest venture, The Wizard of Oz (a show that ran on Broadway for a year in 1996), slides off celluloid and onto the stage with relative ease, even if the great Judy Garland can't come with it.
Playing to the littlest Dorothys in the house (more than one cherubic patron plopped herself down in a Hobby Center seat dressed in full Oz regalia, including the much-coveted ruby slippers), the TUTS production lifts everything it can from the movie.
One of the oddest similarities is how much everybody on stage sounds just like the folks from the film. Through the powers of modern technology and lots of reverb, the Munchkins, all children from TUTS's theater school, manage to imitate the original members of the Lollipop Guild and the Lullaby League.
The Wizard of Oz
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby
Tuesdays through Sundays until December 22, 713-558-8887. $25-$68.
In fact the entire cast, from the Wicked Witch of the West (Marybelle Chaney) to Glinda the Good (Chesley Santoro), sounds as if spent hours watching the movie and studying its every vocal nuance. While no one can deliver the line "I'll get you, my pretty" with the exact throaty, witchy glee of Margaret Hamilton, Chaney comes close. And Santoro does an excellent rendition of Billie Burke's Glinda, making her high-pitched, sugarcoated giggles and motherly admonitions to "follow the yellow brick road" come alive in this production.
Of Dorothy's three companions -- the Scarecrow (John Salvatore), the Tin Man (Matthew LaBanca) and the Cowardly Lion (the simply named Johnson) -- Johnson sounds the most like his screen counterpart, the always trembling Bert Lahr.
And as Dorothy, Danielle Ferretti makes a valiant effort to recapture Garland's pretty, pouty, almost mannered delivery, though her singing struggles to keep up in Garland's signature "Over the Rainbow."
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This shameless copying works better than it should. By the time Dorothy realizes she's not in Kansas anymore, children all over the house are climbing into their parents' laps to see better. And don't think they're the only ones susceptible to this kind of production. At the intermission of a recent performance, the grown-ups all seemed to be telling each other their fond memories of the film.
The Wizard's special effects are fairly simple by today's standards, but there are pyrotechnic moments -- the smoke and crackling fireworks fly every time the Wicked Witch gets cranky. And the storm that starts Dorothy's journey fills the stage with Kansas dust, lifting up the house, poor Dorothy and mean old Elmira Gulch on her bicycle. Once Dorothy and her pack of misfits finally arrive in Oz, the whole place practically explodes in cascades of sparkling fire.
While the show is superglued to its original for the most part, there are a few deviations from the path. At one point, the Witch sends Jitterbugs into the forest to make trouble on Dorothy's journey. It's really just a ruse to allow for some Broadway-style tap dancing, but kids love the black-light moment, when everything disappears except the orange and green appendages of the dancing bugs. In another change, Omari Tau sings a gospelized version of "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead" that is as amusing as can be. But for the most part, these second-act additions lack focus and do little except add length to what is already a long show for anyone under the age of 12.
The Wizard of Oz is not great theater, but, unlike TUTS's recent productions, it's no stinker, either. If kids are part of your holiday entourage, this musical is probably your most satisfying option in the city this month.