Musical ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is childlike in more ways than one

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Ding dong, the witches are back. The most recent musical adaptation of the 1939 film classic “The Wizard of Oz,” by Broadway mastermind Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams, is touring North America and closed its run at San Francisco’s SHN Orpheum Theatre this past Sunday. Unlike the original film, this “The Wizard of Oz” seems to be far less about the tale itself and the lessons learned and is instead centered strictly on the aesthetics. Let’s just say, there’s no way in hell Dorothy is in Kansas anymore.

Webber’s adaptation first premiered in London in 2011, and a second Toronto production spawned a year later. In both stage productions, the role of Dorothy Gale was cast through a reality television series titled “Over the Rainbow” — one with the BBC and the second with CBC, a Canadian broadcasting network. Leading this cast is Danielle Wade, the winner of the Canadian reality series.

As a musical work simply in terms of score and dialogue, there is nothing too remarkable about this particular “Wizard of Oz” that plays out on stage. The musical composition retains many of the film’s timeless songs, such as “Over the Rainbow” and “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” along with several new ones written by Webber and his renowned lyricist, Tim Rice. The two have conquered the Broadway world together with legendary rock musicals such as “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” With this new show, however, the work of Webber and Rice falls incredibly short.

Many of the additions, such as Dorothy’s “Nobody Understands Me” and the Wizard’s “Bring Me the Broomstick,” seem completely unnecessary and rhetorical — taking away the charm of the original libretto. Even the titles of the these songs seem painstakingly obvious and ultimately contribute nothing and instead simply stall.

Nevertheless, the principals play their roles well. Wade captures the innocence and naivete of the legendary Dorothy both in her sweet vocals and childlike mannerisms, while her partners in crime — Tin Man (Mike Jackson), Lion (Lee MacDougall) and Scarecrow (Jamie McKnight) — pleasantly play alongside her with their own distinct eccentricities.

Similar to how the original film switches from sepia tones to technicolor as Dorothy opens the door to Oz, Robert Jones’ sets transform from murky Kansas browns to the vibrant neon world of Oz all in one tornado. Oz, where most of the story takes place, appears to be something out of a children’s book — a little obnoxious at times but well suited for the work. The costumes, also masterminded by Jones, evoke the same effect.

Undoubtedly, the most impressive feature of the production is the tornado that takes Dorothy out of Kansas and straight into its alternate universe counterpart. The cyclone, spearheaded by video and projection designer Jon Driscoll (but recreated by Daniel Brodie) and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, is a sublime film projection coupled with striking flashes of light. It not only plays an integral part in the storyline but also demonstrates how modern theater technologies have evolved since the early days of “The Wizard of Oz.”

The heart and soul of the production lie completely in the aesthetics of the work — the special effects and the projection, the costume and set designs. These are the elements that truly transform the show from something ordinary into a musical extravaganza. With this, no longer is the timeless tale we’re all too familiar with sweet and charming. Rather, it’s superficial and strained.

Michelle Lin covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].