Lloyd Webber’s Oz conjures theatre magic

One of the most spectacular moments of The Wizard of Oz, now at the Pantages Theatre for a three-week run, is the dazzling entrance of Glinda, the Good Witch.

And though the sparkling imagery and big moments transport the audience into a world of fantasy, what makes this production of the classic 1939 movie musical truly magical are the smaller moments, such as Dorothy’s charming footwork as she follows the legendary Yellow Brick Road in her glittering red slippers. The dynamic mix of strong staging with emotionally touching character moments makes this Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams adaptation somehow manage to capture the audience’s imagination and keep its attention, even though we know exactly what will happen next.

Since the film has resonated with audiences throughout many generations, there is always the temptation to compare it with any new stage adaptation. Fortunately, however, this production can stand on its own. Dorothy is played by Danielle Wade, who was cast through a Canadian reality TV show. With a voice that’s reminiscent of Judy Garland, Wade imparts a fragile yet graceful strength to Dorothy that is all her own.

Wade, however, wasn’t the only star of the show. The Scarecrow, played by Jamie McKnight, had impeccable comedic timing. Lee MacDougall’s Lion was on point with hilarious double entendres and Cedric Smith was solid in his role as Professor Marvel/The Wizard.

As excellent as the performances were, The Wizard of Oz’s special effects were just as inspiring. The cyclone, complete with thunder, lightning and everything in between, was marvelously brought to life through skillful projections by video designer Jon Driscoll. Lighting designer Hugh Vanstone also did an outstanding job, especially with the spectacular visuals in Emerald City. Sound designer Mick Potter kept the acoustics crisp so all lyrics were perfectly clear. Music director David Andrews Rogers and orchestrator David Cullen made the music a vivid part of the story, as it was with the original film. Director Jeremy Sams made the characters seem familiar yet new and gave the ensemble a togetherness that was touching. Irene Bohan’s costumes helped set the scene and describe the characters. Her Glinda costume was dazzling; her Professor’s long coat and satin vest were a poignant setup of this picturesque person.

That the original songs hold up so well is a credit to the creative talent of the original composers. “Over the Rainbow” retains its wistful beauty; “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” has humorous appeal; and “Follow The Yellow Brick Road/We’re Off To See The Wizard” is as catchy and hopeful as ever. The songs of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, “If I Only Had (a Brain, A Heart, The Nerve),” project each character’s unique message in a fresh way. As far as the add-ons, Lloyd Webber and Rice are at their best with the Wizard’s warning, “Bring Me The Broomstick,” which echoes the spellbinding melodies of the duo’s greatest achievement, Phantom of the Opera.

Though the show succeeds on many levels, there were a few misses. The opening song — an original by Lloyd Webber and Rice — called “Nobody Understands Me,” comes off as ordinary, both musically and lyrically, especially since it is followed by the stellar Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg  1939 classic, “Over The Rainbow.” Some of the special effects were over the top, such as the enormous lights flashing at the audience too many times during the show. The suspense would have been better sustained through a stronger use of music or better acting. For example, though Jacqueline Piro Donovan excelled as Miss Gulch on her bicycle, she could have been a scarier Wicked Witch of the West. Of course, the gold standard is Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of the Wicked Witch from the 1939 film. Hamilton used her trembling voice, menacing posture and yes, her smile, to reveal herself as the “Queen of Mean.”

When Toto, Dorothy’s dog, played by a rescue animal named Nigel, turns toward Dorothy during her solo of “Over the Rainbow,” that precious moment is the work of animal trainer William Berloni. Spectacular effects make us ooh and ahh, but those more subtle cues make this Wizard of Oz the stuff of fantasy that sticks in our memories.


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