Musical Theatre West (MTW) audaciously hits it out of the park, somewhere over the rainbow, with its production of the 1987 stage musical version of The Wizard of Oz (as opposed to the 2011 reworking by Andrew Lloyd Webber). This adaptation by John Kane stays true to L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, aligns with the iconic 1939 film, and is one that audiences of all ages are exhorted to experience at CSULB’s Carpenter Performing Arts Center through Sunday, July 23rd. Executive Director Paul Garman and company have accomplished the insurmountable as they have realized the staggering imaginative appeal of the movie and have made it every bit as engaging onstage with not just faithful performances, but a behind-the-scenes staff who have fashioned breathtaking visuals and special effects that any Broadway theatre would be fortunate to have.
The narrative of Kansas-native Dorothy, who, following a storm, finds herself in the vibrant and temperamental Land of Oz, where she meets a Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion, is a tale ostensibly as old as time. Their yellow brick-paved journey to the luminescent Emerald City to meet the Great and Powerful Oz, where the pursuit to fulfill individual wishes — which include returning to Kansas (Dorothy), getting a brain (Scarecrow), heart (Tinman), and courage (Lion) — touches on a deeper, philosophical meaning that will resonate with those familiar with The Wizard of Oz and, at the very least, lay the groundwork of a lifetime of appreciation for the uninitiated.
The talent onstage, comprised of both adult and precociously young cast members, appear as if they jumped adroitly into a nostalgic past, pushing all the right redolent buttons, in a surreal dreamscape that consistently awes. While some may posit that the performances feel like impersonations, the truth is that these archetypal depictions have been so interwoven into the fabric of pop culture that attendees wouldn’t expect anything less than characterizations that contentedly conjure what they know and love. Director Paige Price, choreographer Jimmy Locust, and music director Ryan O’Connell seem to intrinsically understand this, certifying that the scenes and musical numbers (by Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg, and Herbert Stothart) echo euphoniously as an homage to the original source material.
Leading the trek through the Land of Oz is Leianna Weaver who assuredly wears the ruby red slippers as Dorothy Gale, a young woman who is simultaneously vulnerable and plucky. Whether she’s playing distressed, sad, or determined, Weaver gets the audience invested in Dorothy’s adventure and makes us smile upon the specter of Judy Garland that is invoked. Weaver, in addition, has a terrific weight to her voice that gives her rendition of “Over the Rainbow” — incidentally sung in a higher key than Garland — more color. And notably, the Toto at her side is mostly a real-life terrier mix known as Hank who is as consummate a professional as any actor, earning affectionate applauses in every one of his scenes.
Erik Scott Romney is Hunk and the Scarecrow, the latter of which would have made the very first Scarecrow, Ray Bolger, proud. Romney is adept at getting across his chief character’s sweetness and using his physicality to communicate the strawman’s lack of balance. Also worth mentioning is that Tj Punchard, DarRand Hall, and Quintan Craig — who play three cheeky crows — share a funny moment with Romney’s Scarecrow who is teased for not being so formidable after all.
Like Romney, Michael James’ Hickory and primarily his Tinman is presented exactly as he should be, with impressive staccato-esque movements as a result of rust to go along with a sympathetic and root-worthy cause. And just as the Scarecrow has his crows, the Tinman is introduced beside a trio of sassy apple trees (Dekontee Tucrkile, Brianna Liddi, Taleen Shrikian) in what quickly becomes a lighthearted, apple-throwing jesting.
The Cowardly Lion (and Zeke) is majestically delineated by William Hartery in what is likely to be a fan-favorite performance. Hartery is so immensely talented, powered by his vocal agility and comedic timing, that it’s like Bert Lahr has been reincarnated. In comparison to Lahr, though, Hartery goes an extra step by infusing his “If I Were the King of the Forest” with a little more pomp and verve, alternating from a robust gruffness to a falsetto all the while ping-ponging from bravado to fright. That said, this Lion isn’t entirely predictable and he pulls out a witty reference to Disney’s The Lion King, which is sure to garner cheers.
Having just finished her spectacularly funny turn as Countess Charlotte Malcolm in A Little Night Music at the Pasadena Playhouse, Sarah Uriarte Berry flexes her versatility as the upstanding Aunt Em (Dennis Holland makes for an honorable husband in Uncle Henry) and the dazzlingly virtuous Glinda the Good Witch. Appearing from the heavens (on a swing harness) with her wand, Berry’s Glinda is the deus ex machina heroine whom every child and adult alike dream of.
As scrupulous as Glinda is, Ms. Gulch and more so the Wicked Witch of the West, both seamlessly recreated by Erica Hanrahan, are the absolute antithesis. Theatregoers wouldn’t have it any other way, either, an axiom which Hanrahan relishes, screeching with delicious discordancy as the green-bodied hag who hath no fun. Storming the stage with her broomstick in tow, Hanrahan’s witch is a delight to watch as she wreaks havoc with her band of ferocious flying monkeys, led by Nikko (Allen Lucky Weaver), who is amusingly capable of only non-word verbalizations.
Then there is, of course, Jason Graae who ensures that his Professor Marvel, Emerald City Guard, and famed Wizard of Oz are all slightly different yet bound by a similar genuineness and dry humor. Graee’s interpretation of his dialogue lends a naturalistic and comforting tenor that offsets some of the larger-than-life impressions, which are no less important and impactful.
To wit, the real stars of the show might be the designers who elevate MTW’s The Wizard of Oz to a brilliantly unreal level. For instance, David Arsenault’s scenic creations, including a very black-and-white Kansas prairie, a flower-festooned Munchkinland, Witch’s Lair (replete with spider-themed gate, cauldron, and crystal ball), Wizard’s Chamber (with a harrowing metallic-visage contraption accentuated by percussive blasts of smoke), an illuminated yellow-brick road erected downstage from the orchestra pit, and — likely with a sizeable assist from technical director Kevin Clowes — awestriking effects involving the shimmering ruby slippers as well as the conical-hatted antagonist’s final exit, to name a handful, are worth the price of admission alone.
Furthermore, Julie Ferrin’s sound design augments the shrillness in the Wicked Witch of the West’s voice as much as it does the booming timbre bellowed by the Wizard. Paul Black’s lighting puts the gleaming technicolor in focus and sets the mood — be it merriment, optimism, or terror. Moreover, projection expert David Engel ingeniously uses projections over a scrim to simulate Kansas’ cataclysmic tornadoes. Last, but not least, are Bradley Allen Lock, Therese Levasseur, and Jeanette Kakuska whose costumes, wigs, and makeup, respectively, amount to wonderfully authentic presentations of characters whose legacies will undeniably live forever.
Fundamentally, Musical Theatre West’s The Wizard of Oz delicately and reverently heeds L. Frank Baum’s tome, animating splendorous images, sequences, characters, and songs for the stage that have been long absorbed by a collective consciousness since the release of the MGM movie 84 years ago. Still, there are surprises not seen in the film like the jaunty “Jitterbug” number along with intros to several of the renowned tunes that are usually shaved off elsewhere.
It also goes without saying that as much of a spectacle The Wizard of Oz is and should be, it isn’t the only thing that matters. Beyond the accurate character representations by the performers, and the unending feast of sights and sounds by the technical crew in MTW’s production, there is a verifiably heartwarming story that unfolds, ingratiating itself to anyone who embarks on seeing the Wizard in Long Beach.
For more information about Musical Theatre West’s The Wizard of Oz at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center (6200 E Atherton St, Long Beach, CA 90840), please visit musical.org