The Wizard of Oz, The Musical
November 23 to December 31, 2011
Martha Cohen Theatre
Listen to my live review of The Wizard of Oz on CBC Radio’s Eyeopener on Monday, November 28th at 7:45 am
Going to see The Wizard of Oz you expect certain things. A twister and Munchkins and red ruby slippers plus witches and wizards and yellow brick roads. And of course let’s not forget the lions and tigers and bears, oh my! But last night I encountered something totally unique at Alberta Theatre Projects’ holiday production of Oz. I met a woman, Canadian born with adult children, who had never seen The Wizard of Oz. Never read the book, never seen the movie and never been to the play. An Oz virgin! It felt like a precious rare discovery in a theatre full of people who, like myself, could hum along with every song and knew the lines before they were spoken.
So, what would I have thought if I were her? Or if not her specifically, someone who was new to the story and production. First I would have thought that The Wizard of Oz is a funny gag a minute comedy verging on farce at times. Second I would have wondered why the silly Wicked Witch of the West is such an enduring force of evil in our cultural collective. And third I would have to scratch my head about audiences’ devotion to the character of Dorothy. This is not to say I wouldn’t have enjoyed the play. I would have to a point. But for this kind of production, the enjoyment really comes from seeing the familiar yet once again. Comparing it to your memories of the movie and seeing where it stacked up. Even perhaps forgiving the production for what it can’t do because you can fill in the blanks yourself. All of this was possible to a greater or lesser degree as the play wobbled between a wonderful reinvention of the movie version to an efficient yet uninspired and sometimes off-putting delivery of the classic.
But back to the imagined Oz virgin’s critique to begin. The Wizard of Oz has always had humorous moments but I was unprepared for the joke-fest treatment this production presented. I can’t think of a single scene that didn’t play for laughs in one way or another by either mugging up the known funny bits, or introducing new elements sure to make the audience giggle. When it worked well, it was wonderful – the Lion’s reference to his father holding him up overlooking the valley a la Lion King and the hysterically funny and smartly creative Munchkin scenes. But at other times it seemed like the comedy was misplaced and trying too hard, especially when it came to the Wicked Witch of the West who instead of evil with a side of scary was portrayed as campy with a penchant for one-liners. I appreciate that this is a family show and that the scare-factor had to be kept at a minimum, but to dumb down the Wicked Witch into a spoof of herself felt wrong to me and didn’t provide the full villain experience the story calls for.
And what of Dorothy and the filling of Judy Garland’s ruby slippers in the role? No doubt this is a daunting task for any actress and while it may be impossible to live up to the legend, Ksenia Thurgood’s Dorothy was wanting not just in relation to Garland, but of its own accord. Right from the first few lines of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” Thurgood’s voice came across as thin and unsuited for the task. In ensemble singing she was easily overpowered and solo had a hard time rising above the music. Her acting was not much stronger with her energies seemingly focused on providing annoyingly enunciated diction and exaggerated crisp consonants. “Oh ToTo, I keep forgeTTing we are noT in Kansas anymore!” It made Dorothy sound formal and cardboard and was an impediment to ever really liking her the way I wanted to.
Thankfully this was not a problem with her trio of friends. The actors playing the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion had similarly large shoes to fill and they did so impressively. Kevin Corey’s Lion was lovable and funny and David Leyshon’s Tin Man broke our hearts when he finally got his. But it was Bruce Horak’s Scarecrow that lit up the stage. From his perfectly rubbery physicality to his naively sage delivery and his resonant singing voice, Horack nailed every turn and gave the audience the perfect Scarecrow.
But the actors aren’t the only thing that makes or breaks the story of Oz. The sets, the effects and the magic are as much the stars of the show as the characters themselves and are a huge challenge to bring to the stage. Director Glynis Leyshon and her team of set, lighting, production and costume design handled the challenge admirably and gave us twisters and flying and Munchkins and melting and yellow brick roads that combined high-tech film and old-fashioned trap doors to create a manageable spectacle. When Glinda the Good Witch first appeared with her hundred foot high dress lit from within I heard a little girl behind me whisper, “Wow!” Given the constraints of a small theatre and what Leyshon accomplished I have to agree.
As I was leaving the theatre and weighing the strengths and weaknesses of the play I couldn’t help but focus on the lovely bits and let what disappointed slide. Perhaps because the Scarecrow and the Munchkins and the joy of an adorable live Toto were overwhelmingly enchanting. Or maybe because I can’t bear to have my memory of The Wizard of Oz tainted with negative thoughts. But either way I did notice I was humming “Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead” on the drive home.
For the kids – Not too scary with lots to laugh at. But be warned, 2.5 hours in total might be a little long for the really young ones. SEE IT
For the adults – Nostalgia factor is high but devotees might be miffed at the differences. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional audience – A fun, easy, familiar night in the theatre with lots of sparkle. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – Despite some great performances and interesting staging there is nothing so compelling that you need to revisit. SKIP IT