There’s nothing very wonderful about Madison Square Garden’s “The Wizard of Oz,” a charmless, surprisingly chintzy affair that squanders one of the best scores in Hollywood history to cash in on nearly six decades of cherished memory. If any artistic imagination went into this rote, rushed re-creation of the 1939 MGM classic film it makes no appearance onstage, nor does it shade the amateurish performance of Roseanne, making her stage debut as the Wicked Witch of the West. The combination of her name above the beloved title and the Garden’s relentless marketing machine should paint the box office emerald — a one-week extension to June 8 has been confirmed, with another week possible — even while more discerning patrons would be well-advised to stay in their own backyards.
Even by the Garden’s own theatrical standard (the lavishly produced “A Christmas Carol”) — and not to mention the stakes raised for family fare on Broadway by the Walt Disney Co. — “Wizard” is a startlingly lackluster production, with low-tech special effects that pale even by the film’s 1939 levels: A twister depicted only in shadow, a Munchkinland incongruously (and cheaply) represented by large wooden cutouts of milk bottle vases and flowers (“Is Dorothy in Milktown?” asked one confused audience munchkin) and the Wizard himself reduced to a robot-like metal face with eyes and mouth that flutter like Captain Kangaroo’s Grandfather Clock.
The show would be unimpressive even for a cost-cutting resident theater (the production originally was presented at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse), but in the Garden’s cavernous auditorium, “Wizard” seems especially disenchanting. “People come and go so quickly here,” Dorothy says, an inaccurate assessment as Glinda’s bubble creaks its way to the wings. A smattering of soap-sud snow drops over the audience but not a flake survives to the stage, and, at the reviewed performance, a model-sized farmhouse that’s supposed to fly over the seats lasted maybe 10 rows before stalling, giving comic meaning to Dorothy’s offstage cries of “What’s happening? What’s happening?”
Later, ticketbuyers in prime orchestra seats often had unobstructed views of stagehands pulling ropes, Winkies waiting for their entrance and a disembodied arm opening a backdrop door for Roseanne’s not-so-mysterious disappearance. Fork over $54 for a top ticket but pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
The lack of technical ambition and expertise — in other words, the penny-pinching — might not be so grating if the show bewitched in other ways. Despite some decent singing (young Jessica Grove does a fine job with a clear, strong rendition of “Over the Rainbow”), the performances are generally in the tradition of overacted children’s theater, thus stripping the characters of whatever dimension survives the Cliff Notes editing. Robert Johanson’s broad directing of his own uninspired adaptation leaves all wit to the screen version.
Of course, no presentation of the brilliant Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg score can be all bad, with “Rainbow,” “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead!” and “If I Only Had a Brain” (including the “blackbird” preamble excised from the movie) performed more or less intact. Even so, one can’t help but miss the movie’s superior visuals — the bird’s nest Munchkins of “wake up you sleepy heads,” for example — that are so linked with the music. Rushed, truncated versions of “If I Only Had a Heart” (the score’s sweetest song next to “Rainbow”) and “Merry Old Land of Oz” (one of the wittiest) are particularly disappointing.
As for Roseanne’s much-ballyhooed stage debut, the sitcom star won’t replace Margaret Hamilton in anyone’s memory. Stiff and humorless, she does a standard-issue, green-faced witch with no more finesse than could be seen at any community theater Halloween pageant. She finds a couple laughs whining for the ruby slippers rather than demanding them, but mostly she just yells a lot.
Most of the other performances are merely Ice Capade versions of their movie counterparts, with only Ken Page as the Lion injecting some of his own personality into the character. Judith McCauley is bland, even for Glinda.
And speaking of bland, Michael Anania’s sets rely heavily on uninteresting backdrops and other low-cost effects. The enchanted forest is just some hanging feather boas apparently meant to look like ivy, there’s not much of a castle to speak of, and Emerald City, although at least colorful, is mostly smoke and green mirrors. Gregg Barnes’ costumes, faithful to the movie, provide more flash than the sets. Still, it’s sad that nearly six decades after Dorothy and pals first sang these songs skipping down the Yellow Brick Road, they arrive on stage to find a wickedly unmagical Oz.