A Wizened Wiz

The Muny presents The Wizard of Oz. (Again.)

The most frequently staged children's musical in Muny history is back. The current incarnation of The Wizard of Oz is the eleventh mounting since 1942. Because the material has lost its surprises for an adult, it seemed only proper to try to view this week's production through a child's eyes.

The eight-year-old seated to my right seemed a worthy (if unsuspecting) candidate. He watched the proceedings with intense interest. Not for one minute was he bored or restless. When, in Act Two, the Cowardly Lion's song "If I Were King of the Forest" included one too many false endings, the lad carped at the top of his voice, "This is too long." (Good criticism. In the 1939 film, the number is performed almost completely in close-up to capture Bert Lahr's expressions; there are no closeups on the vast Muny stage.)

But by evening's end the story became too intense for him. After Dorothy was captured by the Wicked Witch, he whispered to his mom, "We have to go." And so they did. It was a telling reminder that although The Wizard of Oz is ever capable of spreading cheer and simple wisdom, it has not lost its ability to instill terror. For many of us, being scared witless by The Wizard of Oz as a child was a rite of passage no less dismaying than learning the skinny about Santa.

Totally wicked: Jan Neuberger gives a wonderfully evil performance.
Larry Pry/The Muny
Totally wicked: Jan Neuberger gives a wonderfully evil performance.

What other popular myth is so ingrained in our psyches? "It's a twister!"..."I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore"..."Follow the yellow brick road"..."Lions and tigers and bears"..."There's no place like home." These are just a few of the lines that have become part of our daily dialogue. You might even be persuaded that "We are such things as dreams are made on" was first uttered by the Wizard rather than Prospero, the line so encapsulates the evening's magical essence.

This week's outing is an efficient production whose strengths include Jan Neuberger's deliciously wicked dual villainess (Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch). Neuberger is a worthy heir to Margaret Hamilton, who created the roles on film. Joneal Joplin gets Act Two off to a jovial start with his contagious rendition of "Merry Old Land of Oz." The scenic design, while hardly spectacular, is several notches above what Muny audiences have become conditioned to seeing of late. The haunted forest, in particular, recalls the high caliber of dramatic painted drops back in the 1960s.

Several of the principals have played these roles before, so there's a comfort level in the Cowardly Lion of Bruce Adler, Dirk Lumbard's limber scarecrow and Aaron Kaburck's tender Tin Man. Ken Page seems relieved to have graduated from the Cowardly Lion to the Wizard; he looks positively cool in the title role. Kate Manning, the Muny's resident Judy Garland, always seems to get stuck singing songs that Judy still owns. Fortunately Manning is able to put "Over the Rainbow" behind her early on. By the time she gets to "Jitterbug," which was cut from the movie (and thus is not associated with Garland), Manning cuts loose and makes the song one of the evening's high points.

On the debit side, the show requires more imagination from the viewer than it should. The house that lands on the Wicked Witch of the East is no house at all; the Wizard's balloon ascension occurs sans balloon. Late in Act One Dorothy and her newfound friends are rescued from one of their mishaps by a snowfall. As the actors exclaimed, "It's snowing!" the unknowing young critic to my right asked his mother, "Where's the snow?" I was tempted to suggest that he return later this month for White Christmas; you can bet he'll see snow then. So why isn't it snowing in Oz? Good question.

 
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