The Wizard of Oz at Hobby Center Is a Visual Feast With a Familiar Story

The setup:

The acclaimed, much-loved film The Wizard of Oz had been re-created on stage, with four new songs added by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber to the original songs by Harold Arlen (music) and E.Y. Harburg (lyrics). The production is necessarily short on suspense, since you know it so well, but delivers with a strong visual impact and some remarkable performances. This touring production arrives after a Canadian tour and has a cast composed of Canadian actors in most of the principal roles, and with Danielle Wade, who plays Dorothy, chosen by Canadian television viewers after a competition on a reality show.

The execution:

Visual projections are an important part of the magic here, and they work wonderfully, filling the large stage with excitement. The tornado is gripping, and we ride it with Dorothy, and share her fear. And the flight of the flying monkeys is ominous and terrifying, all that it should be. The onstage visuals contribute to the colorful impact, keeping sepia earth-tones in Kansas, and bursting with color in Oz, just as in the film. I especially liked the blood-red trees with tentacle branches in the forest. This production is a feast for the eyes.

The plot (as you well know) involves Dorothy following the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, being joined on the way by the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. There they meet the Wizard, are given a hazardous assignment, which they complete, and, yes, there is a happy ending as Dorothy returns to Kansas.

Wade has a wonderful voice and can hold a note, and captures the sweet naivete of Dorothy, though without the ability of the young Judy Garland, in the film, to break your heart. Jamie McKnight as the scarecrow is brilliant in projecting humor through all the straw, and his eloquent body language adds immeasurably to the fun. Mike Jackson as the Tin Man is more wooden than amusing, but he is burdened by a largely inflexible costume. Lee MacDougall plays the Cowardly Lion as not only a coward, but a sissy, and gay, to boot. This gets a few laughs, but may not have been the wisest choice of the director Jeremy Sams.

The good witch Glinda, played by Robin Evan Willis, enters dramatically with a dress that fills the stage, and Willis delivers authority and style, but without the expected other-worldly spiritual sweetness. Her rhinestone-shimmering gown is more Las Vegas than ethereal, and might win awards on the red carpet. The Wicked Witch is played by Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, who relies on her effective actions, black costumes and green complexion to create menace, but delivers some key lines flatly - 'I'll bide my time" is intended to be sinister, not a throwaway line. Jay Brazeau plays the Wizard, and is good, and his video projections as the powerful Oz are very effective. Dorothy's dog, Toto, important to the plot, is played by Nigel, who has also appeared in The Wiz in New York City, and is admirable, coming close to stealing the show.

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"Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" is performed as a hoedown to welcome Dorothy to Oz, and this was unexpected, but it did serve to distract us from dwelling on how tall the Munchkins were. The ending of Act One, with the visually projected Wizard singing "Bring Me the Broomstick" was powerful and truly effective, a triumph.

The complicated and wonderful lighting design is by Hugh Vanstone. The sets often involve three-dimensional vistas and are invariably interesting and colorful, thanks to Robert Jones. There is a large and excellent ensemble, and the choreography by Arlene Philips, especially of the evil soldiers, is often intriguing. I sensed that the Wicked Witch and the Cowardly Lion are too much in on the joke, too aware that they are exaggerated characters. But these are minor flaws in a production that is sweeping in its ambitions, and which succeeds extravagantly. Director Sams should be proud.

The verdict:

The familiar story is brought to exciting life onstage, in a stunningly colorful production that captures much of the magic of the film, and adds some breathtakingly powerful visual projections to engage a delighted audience.

The Wizard of Oz continues through March 16, from TUTS (Theater Under The Stars), at Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information or ticketing, call 713-315-2525 or 713- 558-8887 or contact www.tuts.com.

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