This lavish production of "The Wizard of Oz" is just the sort of holiday show that I most dread. Not because it's poorly done, just the opposite. Impressively produced, with an extremely talented cast of Seattle actors, competently directed by Bill Berry, faithfully re-creating almost everything we know so well from having seen the classic film a million times, this production delivers exactly what most of the audience probably expects. The applause at the end of the show certainly seemed enthusiastic and appreciative. Yet, for me, it was just something to look at, like a beautifully decorated tree, or a mechanical window display. For all its energy and cheerful amusement, it left me wistful and a little bit sad. If it only had a brain, some courage, a heart.
Of course, a heart of this show begins with Dorothy, that naïve, plucky traveler with her longing, eternal optimism. Cara Rudd is a very talented young woman with a beautiful, well-trained voice, but except for a bit of unusual phrasing during "Over the Rainbow", I have no idea who she is or how she might interpret a role. What we got was Judy Garland's emotions, Judy's vocal patterns, Judy's relationships, Judy's story. There was absolutely no room here for Ms. Rudd to breathe, to invent a moment, to even have a single gesture we haven't seen before in the same place, done the same way, for the same effect. Instead of a character, we saw the role. Instead of this being Dorothy's story, she was simply another cog in the story's familiar machinery.
As for brain, it was certainly apparent in the technical finesse of the production. We had the perfectly re-created black and white Kansas framing story, excellent tornado effects, lovely drops with that yellow brick road winding into the clouds, a pyrotechnic wizard and flying monkeys and witches. It was as if you could take any frame from the film, hold it up in front of the stage picture and say, "now here is how we make that happen on stage". Except a really brilliant brain might have said, "but film spectacle is an entirely different order of being than stage effects, with different expression and different vocabulary. Film allows you to actually see anything actually happen. The stage allows you to see anything you can imagine." The brain in this show was devoted to showing us, not making us see.
Certainly a good part of the brain of this show was apparent in the technical acting skills of Laurence Ballard as the Cowardly Lion, the amazing Patti Cohenour as Glinda, Sean G. Griffin as the humbug Wizard, Louis Hobson as the Tinman and Greg Michael Allen as the Scarecrow. Only Lisa Koch managed to step outside the prescribed enough to give us a Wicked Witch that was distinct, funny and fresh. These are all hugely talented people, but their talent was restricted to doing perfectly what had been done before. Anyone who has seen the extraordinary depth and integrity each of them can bring to a role, can here only observe the technique, admire the skill, appreciate the correctness, and long for another show.
Then there's courage. "The Wizard of Oz" is my personal favorite movie of all time. When I want to see it, I put on the DVD and watch. Every time it is exactly the same, exactly right, unwinding with the inevitability and familiarity of a sunrise. When I go to the theatre, I want to see a dramatic text interpreted, re-imagined, made real in the moment by human beings sharing a human experience that will be subtly different every single time it occurs. I want to participate in a communal act of creativity to give the imaginary the power of reality. Take the story and make the tornado a flurry of dancers. Turn the Emerald City into a sheet of light. Make the Cowardly Lion a balding accountant and the Wicked Witch into a pitchfork. I'm not saying any of my ideas about other ways of doing this story are any good. I'm simply saying that if you're going to do a movie on stage, make it theatrical, not cinematic. "Hairspray" is a good example of a show that looks and feels like it's always been a stage musical. Yes, you may alienate the people who come to the theatre to see their favorite movie just the way they remember it, but that is their mistake. Alienate them. Courage.
So enough of my opinion. This show is, apparently, exactly what people want to see from this great story. It's a big, flashy, fun holiday event, and parent who take their children will see the kids suitably impressed and amused. The actors do solid, professional work, the production values are excellent, and it's all quite entertaining. The children playing Munchkins are adorable. Toto gives as good a technical performance as anyone, always on cue and executing perfectly. The happy ending works out just swell. As I said, the audience seemed delighted, and my reaction is probably clearly in the minority. I just wish there had been less "Look at this. Remember?" and much more "Let's pretend."
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