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Thursday, 15 May 2014 16:30

Off to see the digitally enhanced Wizard

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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Off to see the digitally enhanced Wizard / Cylla von Tiedemann

Turning movies into musical theatre has been a popular pastime for many years now. No surprise, then, that there have been multiple attempts to bring the much-loved 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” to the musical stage. With all those great Harold Arlen and “Yip” Harburg songs, after all, it’s almost a musical to begin with.

Photos: Cylla von Tiedemann

The Muny took a shot at it back in 1945 and the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987. In 2011 Andrew Lloyd Webber, his long-time lyricist Tim Rice, and director Jeremy Sams produced their version for London's West End by adding some new songs, providing additional lyrics for the originals, and tossing in a few big dance numbers.

A tour of the 2012 Toronto version of that “Wizard” (with almost all of the Toronto cast) is playing the Fox this week, and while it's not likely to replace the 1939 movie in anyone's heart, I think it will provide a pleasant evening's entertainment for Oz fans. The new material is pretty well integrated with the older songs and actually advances the story instead of just padding it. That includes choreographer Arlene Philips's dance numbers, which are long enough to be interesting without bringing the show to a screeching halt—as happens far too often in recent Broadway productions.

So the result is a respectable stage musical that closely follows the movie's story line while giving it a somewhat contemporary spin. There's even a little twist at the end which, while out of synch with the film, is true to the spirit of L. Frank Baum's original novel.

While clearly a reduced version of the more elaborate West End production, this tour is still visually striking, thanks to set and costume designer Robert Jones. The stark, sepia-tinged Kansas prairie contrasts nicely with candy-colored Munchkinland, and the Wizard's chamber has an elaborate Steampunk look. And the towers of the Emerald City shoot up towards the fly space in cartoonishly exaggerated forced perspective.

Many of the original film's special effects—including the tornado and the flying monkeys—have been turned into remarkably realistic digital animation sequences (by Daniel Brodie, recreating Jon Driscoll's originals) projected on a massive scrim that covers the entire stage. Indeed, the trip to and from Oz—in a spinning vortex that might look rather familiar to "Dr. Who" fans—has enough depth to risk inducing vertigo.

A very strong cast is headed by Danielle Wade as Dorothy. A University of Windsor acting major, Ms. Wade was chosen for the part by viewers of "Over the Rainbow," a Canadian reality TV show produced specifically to cast the role of Dorothy in the Toronto production (the same process was used to cast the original Dorothy in London). That's an interesting story all by itself, but the bottom line is that Ms. Wade is a strong singing actress with a light soprano that serves both her and the role well. She sounds and looks nothing at all like the young Judy Garland, which is as it should be. She is her own Dorothy, vulnerable and feisty as required and obviously quite comfortable in the part.

Jacquelyn Piro Donovan is Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West. She's one of only two principals who weren't part of the original Toronto cast (the other is Jay Brazeau as The Wizard and Professor Marvel) and appears to be enjoying herself immensely. She has a powerful voice and a commanding stage presence that make the most of her second act opener, "Red Shoes Blues."

Mike Jackson, Lee MacDougall, and Jamie McKnight are the Tin Man, Lion, and Scarecrow, respectively. The script gives each of them a bit more time in the spotlight than their cinematic originals and they all use it to great advantage. A running gag in which the Scarecrow keeps getting and losing ideas is especially well done.

Robin Evan Willis's Glinda has a kind of arch "goody two shoes" (you should pardon the expression) quality that makes for a nice contrast with Ms. Donavan's cheerful wickedness. Jay Brazeau's Wizard is a perfect model of ineffectual humbuggery. Larry Herbert and Chelsey Duplak are a warm and sympathetic Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. Even Toto (a rescue dog named Nigel; he alternates with another rescue pup, Loki) is a real pro and irresistibly cute in the bargain.

Robert Jones's costumes are striking. Glinda, for example, has a particularly arresting glittery gown that literally fills the stage [truly, fills the entire stage?] on her first appearance whereas her wicked counterpart is all black feathers with a wild spike of a wig that looks like a Russian dome (suggesting Baba Yaga, maybe?). The Tin Man looks like a fanciful animated boiler and the Scarecrow is appropriately scruffy. Only the Lion's outfit looks oddly cheesy, like a reject from "Cats."

Throughout the show, an ensemble of nearly two dozen hard-working singers and dancers provide the crowds of Munchkins, residents of the Emerald City, Winkies, and other denizens of Oz. They have, in many ways, the hardest jobs: constantly in motion and dealing with multiple costume changes.

There are no big "oh wow" moments in this show (although some of the animation comes close) but it's fun, the whole family can enjoy it, and it's both faithful to and respectful of its cinematic origins. As I say, if you're an "Oz" fan you'll find it worth your time.

"The Wizard of Oz" runs through Sunday, May 13, at the Fox Theatre in Grand Center. For more information:

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