Published in the Ottawa Citizen on December 30, 2015
There are some pretty cool videos depicting the tornado that sweeps Dorothy and her dog Toto from a Kansas farm and deposits them in Munchkinland. The broom belonging to the Wicked Witch of the West actually explodes into flame. Oz thunders like a petulant god. But modern technical effects aside, at its heart, the joyously executed musical The Wizard of Oz now playing to families at the NAC remains a story rooted in early 20th century rural America when, at least to our contemporary eyes, a kind of pre-ironic innocence and belief that love and kindness could trump evil prevailed.
The production, drawn from L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s book and based on the classic 1939 movie with Judy Garland as Dorothy, wisely avoids updating the original story settings or trajectory.
The farm where Dorothy (the wholly convincing and powerfully voiced Sarah Lasko) feels unwanted by her distracted Auntie Em (Ottawa’s Emmanuelle Zeesman) and Uncle Henry (Randy Charleville) is vintage turn-of-the-century complete with a jerry-built generator that needs the whack of an axe to run.
Munchkinland is a lollipop-coloured place (set and costumes by Robert Jones) where adorable Munchkins frolic when Dorothy’s farmhouse, torn from its moorings by the tornado and with our young heroine and Toto in it, lands on the Wicked Witch of the East.
The yellow brick road is a low-tech pathway from Munchkinland to the Emerald City where Dorothy, spunky and open to adventure though she may be, hopes the Wizard of Oz can whisk her back to Kansas.
And Dorothy’s fellow travellers to Oz – the soft-hearted and brain-deficient Scarecrow (Morgan Reynolds), the heart-lacking Tin Woodman (stentorian voiced Jay McGill) and the courage-challenged Cowardly Lion (Aaron Fried) – are much as we remember them from the 1939 film.
The Wizard, of course, turns out to be a sham albeit a kindly one. Played by Mark A. Harmon, who’s also the fraudulent but warm-hearted Professor Marvel back in Kansas, the Wizard reminds Dorothy that “Things aren’t always as they seem.” It’s a truth that opens Dorothy’s eyes to the adult world without stripping it of the virtues like unselfishness and forgiveness that Baum was eager to nurture in his young readers.
Unfortunately, while pure-voiced Rachel Womble gives a nice turn as ever-so-slightly flakey Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, Shani Hadjian blunts the evil of her Wicked Witch of the West. Channeling her inner cartoon villain (“Muahaha!” she chortles one time too often), this witch feels pro forma when a touch of true scariness would have sparked in us the unease that’s always so much fun. Nor, one suspects, would the children in the audience – some of the little girls in Dorothy-style gingham and at least one sporting red shoes – have objected to a little amped-up fear.
Directed by Jeremy Sams, tightly choreographed by Arlene Philips, and with David Andrews Rogers conducting, the production includes the original film music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Lasko’s delivery of Somewhere Over the Rainbow is an especially pleasing blend of wistfulness and optimism that distills the essence of the story which, even in 1900, was an exercise in nostalgia.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, who with Sams adapted the story for the stage, teamed up with Tim Rice to add some new tunes. They include Already Home sung by Dorothy, Glinda and the ensemble just before Dorothy returns to Kansas. Lovely and rich, the song is classic Webber.
Once back home, Dorothy recalls Oz as “a real place, more real than the real world.” And isn’t that what makes dreams, like the past, so alluring?
Continues until Jan. 3, 2016. Tickets: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-866 991-2787, ticketmaster.ca
The Wizard of Oz
Presented by Broadway Across Canada and Troika Entertainment
National Arts Centre Southam Hall