Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Wizard of Oz - New Twists on an Old Classic

Most people who are three years or older have seen the classic Wizard of Oz movie starring Judy Garland.

When I was a kid, it would be broadcast once a year, and I remember how excited I was to sit down in front of our black-and-white Zenith TV, anticipation building as I watched the prelude and opening credits set against the backdrop of the pre-tornado clouds.

If you're like me, you've seen the movie many times, and the songs, script, and performances by the actors are deeply embedded in your mind.  Famous lines are part of everyday language:  "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" and "There's no place like home."

So, how do you take a classic movie and make it a memorable stage play?  How do you stay true to the delights that people remember, yet create something new?  In attending Andrew Lloyd Webber's production at the Ordway this past weekend, I found out.

New and Excellent 

I was extremely pleased that the play script followed the movie lines very closely, and most of the original songs were used, but there were also some new songs, embellishments to the lines, and of course, all the special effects that can only be seen on a live stage.  Whenever anything new was added, it was done in such a way to either justify it or make it entertaining and excellent.

New Music

Along with some of the old favorites such as "Over the Rainbow"and "We're Off to See the Wizard," one of the new songs sung by Danielle Wade (playing Dorothy) was "Nobody Understands Me" which emphasizes Dorothy's stronger motivation for running away.  (Not just about saving Toto from Miss Gulch.) 

Another new solo was the prelude to "Over the Rainbow." We're so used to Judy Garland launching right into the familiar song, but the prelude (which was part of the original recording) adds a lot more dimension to the story.  Wade delivered it beautifully, her voice blending with the violins in the orchestra:
photo courtesy of Ordway

When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble, all around
Heaven opens a magic lane

When all the clouds darken up the sky way
There's a rainbow highway to be found
Leading from your window pane
To a place behind the sun
Just a step beyond the rain

Another song, "Wonders of the World," was sung by Professor Marvel (played by Jay Brazeau).  His wagon transforms into a contraption that presents a slideshow of his world travels as he sings the song to Dorothy.  As the Wizard, Brazeau also sings "Bring me the Broomstick."

Humor:  "If I Only Had a Plan" was a nice touch for comic relief after the lowest point in the story when Dorothy is captured by the Witch. The other three characters decide to rescue Dorothy as they're putting the Scarecrow back together and using his amputated arm as a prop while he's trying to get it back. 

Story/Character Development

Kansas Farm life:  Just a few added lines early on - Dorothy says to Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, "You're not my real parents!" and this deepens the conflict between them.  I also liked that Dorothy was involved in the farm work, initially showing up in pants, rather than "causing trouble" in that blue checked dress. (She wore the blue dress later.)

What I missed:  Dorothy making her artful tumble into the pig trough which established Dorothy's relationship with Hickory, Zeke and Hunk - not just ranch hands, but friends.

photo courtesy of Ordway
Each of the Oz scenes with the main characters included something extra and slightly different from the movie version.  During the Scarecrow's famous "If I Only Had a Brain" song, it was fun to see the laughing crow puppets that popped out of the corn field who also sang with him.  I suspect that the crows were added as a distraction because, although Jamie McKnight did well as the Scarecrow, no one can top Ray Bolger's performance and stunt work.

I also liked that Mike Jackson (the Tin Man) actually did a tap dance, whereas Jack Haley in the movie did more of a comical soft shoe which didn't last very long.    

In the play, the Cowardly Lion had a longer solo; however, his longer production of "If I were King of the Forest"was dropped.  It was a memorable feature of the film, but the play was fine without it.

Of course, Toto's appearances always stole the show, especially when the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion walked on, disguised as the Witch's soldiers, and Toto followed wearing his cute little miniature soldier outfit.

Glinda and the Wicked Witch sang beautifully and also had a few extra scenes which further developed the sparring between them as two cousins.  "Red Shoe Blues" revealed the Wicked Witch's twisted point-of-view and gave more dimension to the good vs. evil theme.
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan as the Wicked Witch
photo courtesy of Ordway
The Scarecrow had some added lines that made him seem forgetful and lacking in the brain department. It was great humor, but in the end, when the Wizard reveals that the characters already have what they want (a brain, a heart, a home, or courage), and have even proven themselves by defeating the Wicked Witch, then the power of this theme becomes slightly diminished.  (In the movie, the Scarecrow was always the smart one!)

Costumes/Special Effects:

Not like a big sound stage, but I really liked the transitions between scenes.  E.g. the farm buildings moved off stage as Dorothy went to see professor Marvel.  Also, the section of the yellow brick road rotated as the characters traveled to each new location.  It gave the feeling of movement without entrances and exits.

I also liked the black lighting used in the jungle, the HUGE green doors of Emerald City (great eye candy!) and the surprise flashes of white light when there was magic, a storm or an explosion.   

Amazing costume - Glinda came down from the fly space, and her glittering dress filled the whole stage.  
Robin Evan Willis as Glinda
photo courtesy of Ordway
One of the added special features that, IMHO, did not track very well was how the cyclone brought Dorothy's house to Oz.  In the movie, it was a scary, natural phenomenon.  In the play, it was more like an outer space trip to "planet" Oz.  In my mind this switched the story from fantasy (where anything is possible) to science fiction (which needs to be grounded in some credibility).  Also, the Wizard's trip from Oz back to Kansas was in a hot air balloon which would be quite impractical for space travel.  

The winged monkeys were fabulously ugly.  They looked more like gargoyles than the bouncing circus-like animals from the movie (which were also scary in their own way!).  I wanted to see the gargoyles in more detail, but they were always in the shadows.  And when one of them captured Dorothy in a tight winged hold, she was standing in front of him, blocking his face the whole time. Why aren't the monkeys lit very well? Why can't we see their faces?  Then, I realized, oh, of course, they're so well done and so ugly, they'd frighten the small children!

Cabaret Munchkins
photo courtesy of Ordway

The Munchkins were not short, but lithe, versatile dancers of the Ensemble.  As Munchkins they appeared in purple, twirling green, tree-like parasols.  Later they showed up as citizens of Emerald City wearing green and doing Chorus line and Charleston moves.  Then, they became soldiers guarding the Witch's castle, donned in long coats, helmets, and dark glasses, and dancing to a song that sounded like a Russian polka.  Shortly after, they danced as the Witch's minions in red-and-black suspenders, bowler hats, garter belts, fishnets - reminiscent of the movie Cabaret.  In the reprise of "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" ("Hail Hail the Witch is Dead"), they sang and danced using wooden sticks in the air and on the floor.

Tying Up Loose Ends

I really liked that new scripting reflected the sudden change in the soldiers after Dorothy liquidated the Witch.  The soldiers had been slaves under the Witch's power.  When she was killed they were freed and became the "good guys."    

One major discovery:  I never noticed the huge plot hole in the movie when Dorothy returns home, and there's no further mention of Miss Gulch taking Toto away.  In the play, Miss Gulch drops the charges when she finds out that Dorothy was hurt.  So, it still, logically ends happily ever after.

Ending Touches:

As Dorothy's leaving Oz, she tells the Scarecrow, "I'll miss you the most." The Tin Man and Lion reply, "Why him?  What about us?"  Dorothy explains that she met the Scarecrow first, but she loves all of them and this prompts a group hug moment.  

There's also a nice touch at the end after Dorothy's home and everyone has stopped by to check up on her.  Of course, they all believe her adventures were a dream. After they leave, she opens a small glowing compartment and reveals that she still has the ruby slippers.

All in all, the Ordway's Wizard of Oz was a real treat, and a great feel-good classic for the whole family.  For information about the Ordway Theatre or the 2014 Flint Hills International Children's Festival go to www.ordway.org or call  651-224-4222.

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