It must be a formidable undertaking to decide to stage a production of The Wizard of Oz. Expectations are high. The Wizard of Oz gold standard is the 1939 film starring Judy Garland. And let’s face it, Garland IS Dorothy Gale. She is the G.O.A.T.: The Michael Jordan (Lebron James?) of Munchkinland. “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” not only became Garland’s signature song, it won an Academy Award for Best Song, it is number one on the “Songs of the Century” list and was adopted by American troops in Europe in World War II as a symbol of America. Filling those ruby slippers is a nearly impossible task. And yet every year, wannabe Dorothy’s around the world don the blue gingham dress and follow the yellow brick road, doing their best Judy Garland impression. The problem is that even though these performers have lovely voices and may well have been the best singer in their high school class, the tendency is that it sounds like a Garland impression, not a fresh take on the role.
Musicals in general are bigger, more creative and more technologically savvy now than they were when The Wizard of Oz was born. Opulent sets. Helicopters. Crashing chandeliers. Pyrotechnics. Revolving stages. Flying carpets that have no visible wires. Hamilton. The Lion King. The Phantom of the Opera. Miss Saigon. Aladdin. The sets are stunning: brighter and shinier and paid for with that Disney money. How can a simple production with flat backdrops, simple projections on a scrim, and a smoke machine compete?
Full disclosure: I have seen a lot of musical theater. A LOT. Chicago, NYC, London. Big houses and small. I have been surprised and mystified and gobsmacked by creative direction and sets and celebrity voices and brilliant acting. So, when presented with the simple, straightforward, non-splashy, basic version of The Wizard of Oz that just opened at The Chicago Theatre, my jaded, spoiled self was unimpressed: “Her voice isn’t as strong as Garland’s.” I thought, “The sets aren’t as shiny as Aladdin’s. There aren’t any flashy gimmicks. I can totally see wires on that broom. Ugh. What is even happening?”
Then I caught a glimpse of the person seated to my right: Nami, age 5½. She was rapt, captivated by what was happening on the stage. At intermission, I asked her what she thought about the show so far. Nami is my friend’s kid and she is not afraid to speak her mind. “I like that the dog is a real dog,” she said, referring to Murphy, a white Brussels Griffon/Cairn Terrier Mix, who was in the role of Toto. She was right about that: Murphy, who was rescued on February 5, 2016 from the ASPCA in Chandler, AZ by music director, Lizzie Webb, was incredible onstage. “Also, I like how the Queen was in a bubble.” Glinda the Good Witch of the North’s main form of transportation is a circular wire cage that is craned offstage. It is not particularly sophisticated. But when Nami looked at it, it was a floating bubble carrying a Queen. Fresh eyes for an old show. "What did you NOT like about the first half?" “Nothing,” she said. “You liked everything about the first half of the show?” “Yes.”
Resolved to change my mindset, I found myself watching the audience in the second half, rather than the performers. More than one young Dorothy was wearing a blue and white gingham pinafore, pigtails and ruby slippers. Two little girls in their Sunday best were dancing in the aisle. Adults and children alike donned witches’ hats and waved wands. Even the most jaded (me) were singing along to the familiar songs. Everyone was into the music and the story, no one cared about sophisticated sets or perfect voices. It was joyful. This is what makes The Wizard of Oz a timeless family favorite, regardless of glitzy sets and glamorous star voices. This is what musical theater is about.
In addition to Murphy (who was the unanimous MVP), other highlights included: Victor Legarreta as the Cowardly Lion (channeling Bert Lahr in the very best way), the mad tap dancing skills of Christopher Russell as the Tinman and Eileen Janesz, Kelsey Schergen and Tricia Zuskind as the apple-throwing, scene-stealing Trees in the “If I Only Had A Heart” number.
After the show, Nami thoughtfully considered whether she might have any advice for her friends seeing the show: “(I would tell them) There’s a witch, so they might get scared.” Always good advice.
The Wizard of Oz runs through May 20, 2018 at The Chicago Theatre (175 N. State Street)