'The Land of Oz' Musical, Now at Dobama Theatre, is Delectable Fun Featuring Beloved Characters With a New Twist

The world premiere retells L. Frank Baum's sequel to 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz'

click to enlarge 'The Land of Oz' Musical, Now at Dobama Theatre, is Delectable Fun Featuring Beloved Characters With a New Twist
Steve Wagner Photography

If your intent is to adapt a century-old children's story and turn it into a contemporary play, you could do a lot worse than land on the works of L. Frank Baum. He gifted us with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which has been a foundation stone for most of our childhoods, replete with kid-friendly details such as the Munchkins, the Wicked Witch and her flying monkeys, and the three animal pals who help Dorothy find her way back home.

With that in mind, two uber-talents of the local theater landscape—Nathan Motta and George Brant— have combined their estimable talents to retell Baum's Oz sequel in Dobama's world premiere musical "The Land of Oz." It's an interesting challenge and Motta's original music rises to the occasion with a raft of pleasant songs and a couple standouts. While the book and lyrics by Brant lean heavily on the source material (and why not, since Baum still is the bomb), there are plenty of smiles to be had from this or that turn of phrase.

The only major problem is a wrinkle of the central theme involving a young boy named Tip who is the "Dorothy" in this story. Parentless Tip knows where his home is, with a nasty crone-witch named Mombi who has many powerful potions to enforce her evil wishes. Tip's trouble, as elucidated early on, is that he doesn't feel complete or comfortable in his skin. The details of how this is resolved makes perfect sense but could also be a bit fraught for some people.

Lonely Tip, who lives in Gillikins, a suburb of the Land of Oz, has built a life-size pal out of branches and scraps of fabric, topped off by a pumpkin head with a carved smile and big, hollow eyes. Having cadged a bottle of the "powder of life" from Mombi's potion cabinet, he sprinkles some on his pumpkin-headed friend and he immediately animates thanks to Eric Fancher, the full-body puppeteer and voice of the newly named Jack (the Irish surname O'Lantern omitted, sadly).

From there Tip and Jack, who now view themselves as father and son respectively, wend their way through several of Baum's blissfully wacky stories on their way to, you guessed it, the Emerald City. These include encounters with the Scarecrow (Fabio Polanco) and the Tin Man (Jason Eno) each of whom, having graduated from the Wizard of Oz's School of Self-Realization, are now the leaders of their own lands. Later, they all hook up with the (don't say cowardly!) Lion (Dar'Jon Bentley), who is still beset by panic attacks when anything unexpected happens.

Although Polanco's Scarecrow doesn't capture the loose-limbed poetry of movement of the iconic Ray Bolger (and who could?), he crafts a warm and approachable character who bonds with Tip. As the Tin Man, shiny and silvery Eno delivers a limber, kickass soul/rock solo in "Shake Off That Rust" that doesn't just stop the show, it probably also stops traffic outside on Lee Road. And while the Lion doesn't have a comparable song, Bentley's quivering but indomitable take is reminiscent of Bert Lahr's.

Meanwhile, back in town, a female military General Jinjur (Neely Gevaart) has assembled a battalion of women combatants to take over Gillikins, since they're tired of men running everything. This feminist blast is surprising although, in Baum's telling, the women warriors wanted to take over so they could each get a dozen new gowns. Feminism only went so far back at the turn of the 20th century.

Speaking of women plotting, Mombi is also planning skullduggery. In this role, a bent-over and scary-looking Trinidad Snider wins Witch-of-the-Year as she snarls her plans while waving her gnarly fingers. Snider single-handedly makes the three witches from Macbeth look as tame as the Lennon Sisters (from the Lawrence Welk Show! Google it, non-Boomers).

Perhaps the most delicious character is the "Highly Magnified" and "Thoroughly Educated" Woggle Bug, another Baum invention who is brought to delightful life by the ever-inventive Trey Gilpin. In the role of Tip, young Jordyn Freetage is solid and professional beyond her tender years, and she doesn't miss a step in the company of this talented acting and singing entourage.

Now, about the theme.

Spoiler Alert:

It turns out Tip was born a girl and was disguised as a boy by dastardly Mombi to hide him from Glinda, the Good Witch (Lana Sugarman). Tip's discomfort arose from that, and it is cured in an instant once he gets rid of his boy clothes and dons a sparkly, feminine outfit. Because he's actually a she...Princess Ozma!

This gender switch was a bold idea back in Baum's era, and it makes perfect sense if you're talking about a girl whose real identity was denied. Clearly, the play's creators want to celebrate the idea of being who you really are. But by making Tip's female birth gender the ultimate solution, the theme could be read as a one-size-fits-all solution for every gender conflict, and that could be hurtful to some.

That aside, the production moves smoothly utilizing simple, movable set pieces and some dazzling projections designed by T. Paul Lowry, even though old-timey picture frames painted on the flats sometimes get in the way of the projections.

All in all, "The Land of Oz" is a delectable box of theatrical treats, and it may send you back to read the original stories, where Baum's extraordinary mixture of whimsy and insight are on full display.

The Land of Oz
Through December 31 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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