Long before Dorothy utters the immortal line “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” audiences of the Ordway Music Theater’s “The Wizard of Oz” know they’re in unfamiliar territory. No farm. No Auntie Em. Not much of a tornado. A man as the Wicked Witch.
Granted, adapting this American icon for the stage is fraught with danger. The Ordway, in its first attempt at producing rather than importing a Broadway-quality show, has put new spins on a beloved tale. Ironically, what would probably fly best on Broadway is a faithful adaptation of the movie, complete with flamboyant dance numbers. This is not the Yellow Brick Road the Ordway has chosen, and the company deserves some credit for taking the riskier path.
Although some of the new spins are clever, others range from the distracting to the disastrous. Conceptually, the musical has been (rather dubiously) recast not as a story about Dorothy and her little dog, but as a battle between the writer L. Frank Baum and his critics. Baum is with us from the first scene to the last, narrating the story, filling in as Auntie Em or the Good Witch of the North and — most annoying of all — explaining how hard it was to write such a brilliantly imaginative story in the first place.
Baum’s nemesis is a cynical critic who ridicules the writer for wasting his talent on frivolous kiddie fare. The nemesis (who doubles as the Wicked Witch) prances around the stage, cackling like Batman’s Joker, taunting Baum with self-doubt. The entire production suggests, rather strangely, that Worth Gardner — a triple threat as the show’s adapter, director and choreographer — felt more strongly about defending Baum’s place in literary history than he did about “The Wizard of Oz” itself.
Unfortunately, the belabored point of this exercise — that Baum, like the Wizard, was a mere mortal — distracts from Dorothy’s odyssey. Oh, Dorothy gets delivered to Oz in a perfunctory tornado of swirling lights, dances with some Munchkins, sings “Over the Rainbow,” follows the Yellow Brick Road and all the rest, but she does it as an agent of Baum’s imagination, not as a character in her own right. This can be funny (as when Dorothy suddenly stops skipping and asks Baum, “Is this the only dance we do?”), but for the most part it adds a layer of self-consciousness to the narrative.
Even worse is the intrusion of the “Elementals,” a crew of about 15 insect-like creatures who, in their naked state, are outfitted in gray plastic bodysuits that make them look like steroid slime-things from the Land of Ooze.
The Elementals represent, according to Baum, the unformed stuff of the soul, but in this production they exist to fill up the stage, assuming the roles of the Munchkins, forest trees, the Wicked Witch’s henchmen, whatever. This is a perfectly acceptable theatrical device, but the creatures themselves look too weird, and their oppressive grayness on the predominantly black-and-gray set makes the whole production feel rather depressing, no matter how giddy the songs. Some of the musical numbers, such as the glittery, neo-bee-bop “Emerald City,” manage to combat the pervasive gloom, but not for long.
It’s not surprising that the parts that work best come closest to mirroring the magic of the movie. The Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion are eminently entertaining, and as long as Suzanne Bedford doesn’t have to reach for too many high notes, her Dorothy is a passable imitation of Judy Garland’s.
Still, audiences can’t help comparing what they see on the stage with what they’ve seen on the bigscreen, and in this case the stage version comes up woefully short.