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by Michael L. Quintos
There's an old showbiz cliché that says that you shouldn't work with kids or animals. Luckily, both contribute an enjoyable, charming quality to 3D Theatricals' gargantuan stage production of THE WIZARD OF OZ, its latest offering that performs at the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton, CA through October 30. Buoyed by a familiar story, an enormous cast, and colorful set pieces snatched from a previous Madison Square Garden production, the show is an admirable undertaking that closes the OC-based theater company's 2011 season—its first complete slate in its new venue.
Based on John Kane's 1987 stage adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company—the same version that continues to be widely licensed for regional and school productions—this family-friendly musical concoction of L. Frank Baum's popular novel stays almost painstakingly faithful to the massively well-known 1939 MGM feature film that starred Judy Garland. From its monotone-hued Kansas setting down to the technicolor dazzle of its otherworldly Oz, this production intentionally aims to be as similar to the cherished movie musical as possible. Though the show retains all of the film's music and even most of the script, this iteration expands on the dialogue and lengthens much of the score and individual songs. Even the resurrected "Jitterbug"—a song cut from the original movie—finds new life in this stage version.
The heart of the show—its renowned tale—remains lovingly intact: restless teen dreamer Dorothy Gale (Melinda Koen), living in dustbowl-era Kansas with her Auntie Em (Diane Vincent) and Uncle Henry (Jimmy Hippenstiel), longs to leave the constriction of farm life and fly far, far away to a nicer place... perhaps somewhere over the rainbow.
Her life gets even less pleasant when cantankerous neighbor Ms. Gulch (Tamara Zook), armed with a written decree, demands that the Gale's cherished pet dog Toto be confiscated for "attacking" her. Toto, however, manages to escape from Gulch's clutches and returns to Dorothy, who then and there decides that it would be best for them to run away from home. During their aimless journey across the dirt plains, the pair happen upon the caravan of traveling magician Professor Marvel (David Allen Jones). Using slight-of-hand trickery in the guise of "fortune telling," the stranger convinces the young runaway to hurry home to her family where she's needed.
But as fate and bad timing would have it, Dorothy returns to the homestead right as a raging tornado is whipping the surrounding countryside into a whirling dust storm. Unable to descend into the family's below-ground storm bunker for safety, she rushes inside her house and gets hit by flying debris. She's out like a light. When she finally wakes (or is she still dreaming?), she notices that the tornado itself is somehow now carrying the entire house within its vortex.
Once the tornado finally comes to a stop, Dorothy discovers that the house has landed in a magically colorful world populated by short-statured munchkins. She learns from Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Vincent, in her second role) that she has successfully freed the munchkins from slavery when her house landed on and killed the Wicked Witch of the East. This, naturally, doesn't sit well with that diseased witch's sister, the Wicked Witch of the West (Zook, again, in her second role), who vows revenge on Dorothy... and her little dog, too! Her hatred for Dorothy is exacerbated by the fact that her sister's ruby slippers somehow found themselves on Dorothy's feet.
Thus begins Dorothy's quest: to seek an audience with the Wizard of Oz, who lives in Emerald City, in the hopes that he can help her and Toto find a way back to Kansas and escape from the Wicked Witch's threats. Along the yellow brick road—the path that leads to Emerald City—she meets the brainless Scarecrow (Graham Kurtz), the heartless Tinman (Ryan Ruge), and the courage-deprived Lion (CJ Porter). She encourages each new friend to accompany her to see the Wizard to, perhaps, grant their wishes as well.
Going in, the stage show itself has an automatic caché of entertainment equity thanks to its beloved source material. And it is certainly what one does with said source material that can determine whether a show satisfies or not. Under director Shauna Markey (who also choreographed), this production does an admirable job of trying to honor the film and its many signature moments, like the sequence in Munchkinland and the introduction of each of Dorothy's companions.
Markey also seems to have a knack for wrangling enjoyable performances from the child actors in the cast—a real highlight in the show. Though it may have, at times, felt a bit like a more lavish version of an elementary school play, the Munchkinland scene ultimately proved very cute. Kudos to the lollipop guild trio for doing a brilliant, pitch-perfect recreation.
There's lots to like about 3D Theatricals' WIZARD OF OZ. The dust-hued visual treatment of the scenes in rural Kansas is quite an "oooh" moment when you realize that almost all of it is devoid of color, much like in the film. The contrast between these dreary sepia-toned scenes and the kaleidoscope of rich color within the more whimsical fantasy world of Oz is pretty striking. The musical sequences are all performed very well, speaking volumes to the timeless quality of the wonderful compositions by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg.
One particularly great scene is when the cast sings "Merry Old Land of Oz"—which here has been re-imagined as lively community flash mob a la "One Short Day" from WICKED. With characters dressed to the nines as the set takes on a vibrant green glow, the whole number features almost the same look and vibe that "One Short Day" evokes, bridging this WIZARD OF OZ into the more modern vernacular provided in the Gregory Maguire's unofficial prequel. The Ozians in this musical have never looked more Ozmopolitan, as they try to make a connection between this century's biggest hit and the original musical that inspired it.
But this is far from a perfect production. Though the movable sets and the flying characters (courtesy of wire work from Flying By Foy) add a discernible wonder and a certain grandness to the production, their usage isn't entirely error-free (examples include, the vignette involving the crows and microphones routinely go in and out in the most inopportune moments). And in film, music serving as underscoring for scenes feel natural; for stage shows, particularly in how it's used in this one, the incidental score that plays while characters are speaking feels odd and quite intrusive.
But the show's biggest hindrance is perhaps its laborious book—a feeling also whispered by a few patrons leaving the theater on opening night. Though pretty much an exaggerated carbon copy of the 1939 film's screenplay, the show has been lengthened overall for the stage. Although understandable in most cases, some of the expanded sequences here feel unneeded, while others seem like mere padding to an already-okay scene in the film. The rather lengthy show could have used plenty of cuts here and there—particularly the unnecessary, unintentionally cringe-worthy scene featuring singing, giant-lipped apple trees, which appear to be almost on the cusp of being offensive (thankfully, it doesn't quite reach the level of the crows in Song of the South or anything).
Gripes aside, the cast of this production is truly exceptional. As the infamous Dorothy, Koen sings well—especially in her rendition of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"—and even channels a bit of Garland's oratorical mannerisms without it being a complete impersonation. Though she does seem more mature for the part visually, she makes up for it with some interesting acting choices and her rapport with her trio of traveling companions feels natural.
Speaking of her yellow brick road pals, the three actors—Ruge, Kurtz, and Porter—all do a fine job with their more showy respective roles, and Porter particularly gets to standout thanks to an over-the-top costume and a moment in the show where he breaks the fourth wall into a jungle stand-up comic routine, offering one of the night's most entertaining sequences in the entire show.
The dueling witches, Zook and Vincent, are also a delight to watch. Zook in particular gives appropriate nastiness to her take on the famous witch. Too bad her role doesn't give much opportunities to sing, but when she does—as is in the intro to "Jitterbug"—she sounds great. By contrast, Vincent's high-pitched Pollyanna-ish parody has a slight hint of sarcasm that makes it a pleasure to watch.
Despite being haunted by an onslaught of opening night technical glitches and unfortunate gaffes, the show, overall, still manages to be quite fun and lively in its attempt to recreate a beloved novel and film for the stage. Though this may not be the best 3D Theatricals has offered before in its brief history, their production of WIZARD OF OZ is still an admirable achievement among their offerings.
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Photos of 3D Theatricals' presentation of THE WIZARD OF OZ by Alysa Brennan.
From top to bottom: Dorothy (Melinda Koen) and Toto (Nigel) in Kansas; the foursome walk towards Emerald City; Glinda the Good Witch (Diane Vincent) delivers news to a munchkin; the Cowardly Lion (CJ Porter) makes a declaration.
Performances of 3D Theatricals' THE WIZARD OF OZ continue at the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton through October 30, 2011 and are scheduled Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm.
The Plummer Auditorium is located at 201 East Champan Avenue in the city of Fullerton.
For tickets or more information, call 714-589-2770 or visit www.3DTshows.com.