Onstage 'Wizard' stays on this side of the rainbow

January 06, 1994|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Contributing Writer

If you're off to see "The Wizard of Oz" at the Lyric Opera House, you'll find a stage version that delivers enough by way of serenading Munchkins and malicious flying monkeys to happily remind you of the classic 1939 movie. But if this touring show scores points for fidelity to a movie we all know by heart, it falls short in terms of heartfelt inspiration.

The core audience for such a stage musical -- Baby Boomers who grew up on the annual telecasts, their toddlers and other cult friends of Dorothy -- may come away with mixed feelings. It's nice to hum along to the familiar tunes and recite the dialogue along with the actors as if this were a religious ritual. It's not so nice to realize the movie memories are far richer than what you're seeing before your eyes.

Literal-minded in a plodding way, this "Wizard of Oz" never soars. If the 1975 all-black Broadway musical version, "The Wiz," was a cleverly tuneful riff on the basic story line, this "Wizard of Oz" invites head-to-head comparison and falls short. Surrender, Lyric production!

Everything from the thin-sounding pit band to the unimaginative stagecraft serves as a reminder that mere competence isn't sufficient where such a beloved story is concerned. The tornado scene, for instance, should be terrifying. Instead, we get a meteorologically unique tornado in which no wind blows. Really. A sheet hanging on a Kansas clothesline doesn't even sway. Lighting and sound effects are meant to convey the storm's fury, but come off like, well, like lighting and sound effects.

A number of other scenic elements in the show likewise seem perfunctory. There's not even a proper yellow brick road, as if this production decided to take the low budgetary road.

The only three attempts at creativity in the show are to "cast" puppets as some of the Munchkins, put sunglasses on all the inhabitants of Oz, and restore a musical number by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, "The Jitterbug," cut from their movie score. All three items are silly and that jitterbug number makes Dorothy seem like an overly excited hoofer.

Actors in such a stage venture admittedly have the impossible task oftrying to match up to those movie immortals Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton and Billie Burke. They also have the unenviable task of having to share the stage with the dog playing Toto, whose mere entrance elicits a collective "Awww!" from the audience.

Kim Smith is actually pretty good as Dorothy, though her tendency to rush her words often turns them into mush. She does justice to "Over the Rainbow," even if my eyes remained dry. The most enjoyable performance is by Lennie Watts as Zeke/the Cowardly Lion; his slow and sentimental approach to the Lion's character is a savvy vaudeville turn.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "The Wizard of Oz"

When: 8 tonight, tomorrow and Saturday; 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday; 5:30 p.m. Sunday; through Sunday

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

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

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

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