Nothing's As Good As the Original Movie, But "The Wizard of Oz" at Playhouse Square is Damn Close

First of all, let’s be clear: It isn’t as good as the movie. Nothing is as good as the original flick with Judy Garland as Dorothy and Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West. That said, this touring production, with new music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, is a total delight and you should hop on the nearest tornado and come see it.

There are so many things this version of Oz gets right, starting with the fact that Webber and Rice didn’t try to outshine the classic songs written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Instead, they’ve added sung-through moments at the start and end of both acts that help liven up the narrative. And it all works amazingly well. In between, they have left most of the familiar tunes we all want to hear, including “”We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,” and of course “Over the Rainbow.”

While this is not one of the gargantuan travelling productions with tons of different and complicated sets, director Jeremy Sams and the staging team have focused their energies on the key moments, turning them into jaw-dropping events. The tornado that whisks Dorothy and her little dog Toto away from Kansas is actually sort of terrifying, conveyed by a projection in which all sorts of stuff, including Dorothy’s house, is made airborne.

Just as good is the projection used when the Witch’s flying monkeys take off, soaring over the Oz landscape. Indeed, the two or three winged creatures that actually show up on stage are the stuff of nightmares all by themselves. And when the fearsome Wizard confronts Dorothy and her pals, his face is projected in a chilling black and white negative image that is arresting.

The cast is more than sufficient to the task at hand, although when you compare them to the actors in the film these live performers often pale. Sarah Lasko sings well as Dorothy but never quite registers as the innocent girl she’s supposed to be. The gang of three—the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion—each have their moments. But Morgan Reynolds stands out (while often collapsing) as the loose-limbed Scarecrow and Aaron Fried gets a lot of laughs as the fragile Lion with a comically erect tail.

As Professor Marvel and the Wizard, Mark A. Harmon doesn’t create his own take on these characters. And the same is true with Shani Hadjian as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch, since her laugh-cackle can’t match the Hamilton screech that still sends kids to bed shivering.

But let’s not compare this show to perfection. The production at the State Theatre is thoroughly captivating and will keep the full attention of adults and kiddies. It’s a splendid adaptation and actually serves as a wonderful companion piece to the movie.

The Wizard of Oz
Through December 6 at Playhouse Square, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

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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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