Special-effects wizards cast 'Oz' spell onstage

January 04, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

In yesterday's Today section, a story about the stage $H production "The Wizard of Oz" incorrectly stated the location of the show. It runs through Sunday at the Lyric Opera House.

* The Sun regrets the error.

Some reassuring things to know about "The Wizard of Oz," the stage production opening tonight at the Morris A. Mechanic Theater:

Dorothy's house lifts off and whirls away in a tornado. Nasty Miss Gulch transforms into the Wicked Witch while pedaling her bicycle. The Lullaby League and Lollipop Guild of Munchkins sing and dance. The witch throws fire at Toto and Scarecrow. And menacing monkeys fly.


And then there's the Oz head.

"Oh, it's so neat," says Richard Ericson, director of the Musicals America Inc. production, which runs through Sunday. "The eyes move, and lights shine through, and it's 14 feet tall and colorful, actually much livelier than the movie."

Mr. Ericson's version of the Frank Baum tale faithfully follows the script and score of the great 1939 MGM film, in which Judy Garland and her fanciful companions settled forever into the heart of American pop culture.

"Of course, it cannot duplicate Judy Garland or Frank Morgan Wizard in the film]. But it's more surprising in some ways than the movie," says Mr. Ericson.

The film surprised moviegoers with its dazzling special effects. Mr. Ericson acknowledges facing a challenge in re-creating scenes so they'd work in live theater.

"This is a theater piece, so we had to ask, 'If we do all this stuff, is there going to be a story, or is it going to be just a three-ring circus?' " Mr. Ericson explains.

But some effects just had to be attempted. For example, the XTC tornado that sends Kansas girl Dorothy Gale off to see the wonderful wizard.

"In the movie, they had big wind machines. Obviously we can't do that in a theater, so we've done most of it with lights and sound," explains the director, adding, "but Dorothy's house does fly."

A model of the house "about the size of a coffee table" is rigged to fly out over the heads of the audience, he says.

In Munchkin Land, Dorothy meets the familiar denizens. But where the moviemakers cast scores of little people and children for those roles, this could not easily be done for a traveling theater show. So Mr. Ericson and co-producers Renny Serre and Laura Harris, whose home base is the Theatre-by-the-Sea in Matunick Beach, R.I., turned to the Providence-based Big Nazo Puppets troupe.

In some cases, such as the Lullaby League and Lollipop Guild numbers, a single puppeteer works five or six other dancing figures, says Mr. Ericson.

And what about all the peril that Dorothy (Kim Smith), the Scarecrow (Matthew McDougall), Tin Man (Brad Willis) and Cowardly Lion (Lennie Watts) brave on the Yellow Brick Road?

"There are lots of pyrotechnics," assures the director. They'll be provided by the Le Maitre company, "who do the premiere system in the world, used in Las Vegas by Siegfried and Roy and everybody."

The Wicked Witch (Ellen Martin), for example, "materializes" in puffs of smoke and fire. And that scary encounter in the forest, when the witch menaces the travelers from atop a log cabin, takes place as in the movie. "She actually throws fire," says Mr. Ericson.

The two-part effect involves a magician-like fireball flung from a device in the actress' hand while an explosive device detonates on the floor of the stage.

The Las Vegas-based Flying By Foy firm provides the cable system that allows the monkeys and other characters to fly. Peter Foy "flew" Mary Martin as "Peter Pan" on Broadway, notes Mr. Ericson.

Installing the show in each theater of the tour takes about eight hours, with a traveling crew of 10 technicians supplemented by 28 or 30 hands hired in each city.

Actors spent several days learning stunt techniques -- especially Mr. Willis. As the Tin Man, he is lifted 15 feet into the air and dropped by the winged monkeys.

Mr. Ericson, who graduated from Woodward High School in Montgomery County, thinks audiences will be surprised by the show's monkeys.

"When I was a kid, those little bellhop monkeys [in the film] frightened me to death," he says. "But they would frighten no one today, at least anyone who's seen 'Star Wars' or the like. Ours are really vicious-looking, a combination of bat and monkey."

Many young children are not as intimately familiar with "The Wizard of Oz" as are baby boomer adults like the 40-year-old director, who have seen the movie dozens of times on television.

"There are gasps when the witch melts. They don't know it's coming," says Mr. Ericson.

Even the most Oz-ified adult will see something new. The stage show includes two scenes edited out of the film: a longer version of the Scarecrow's dance, and a jitterbug dance just before the four companions reach the Emerald City.

"The Wizard of Oz" marks just the second national tour mounted by Musicals America Inc., which was founded in Rhode Island in 1988. Last year, they produced "The Music Man," but the show did not visit Maryland.


When: Today through Jan. 9; 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

Tickets: $12.50 to $30; children under 12, $5 off

Information: (410) 625-1400; TDD: (410) 625-1407

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