Saturday, May 10, 2014

Hello Yellow Brick Road: Onstage, The Wizard of Oz is Rather Wonderful -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Wizard of Oz
a stage musical featuring songs from the movie
and new ones by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru May 11

As I watched a much better than anticipated stage production of The Wizard of Oz from the back row of the Cadillac Palace, I felt bad for anyone who did not have a smile on their face--or at least in their heart--for a good part of the evening.

For I am far from the only one who was properly brainwashed in childhood by the classic movie that turns 75 this year, and I was singing (mostly silently), humming and finger tapping away with Dorothy and her pals.

With first-rate performers--most hailing from Canada, where this touring production germinated based on a recent London staging--including Danielle Wade in the central role (she was selected through a Canadian reality TV show), it was both a sentimental and acute pleasure to hear buoyant renditions of "Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead," "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," "We're Off to See the Wizard" "The Merry Old Land of Oz" and several other classic choral numbers, plus a sterling version of "Over the Rainbow" by Wade.

And as opposed to what I may have suspected--at least before reading Chris Jones' rather upbeat review on isn't some slapdash stage re-enactment of the movie simply to entice kids of all ages with easy brand-name product. I believe that's been done before with this cherished title, and I've never been much inspired to check it out onstage. The movie would seem to remain more than adequate.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Emerald City:

Andrew Lloyd Webber got involved.

Sir Andrew newly adapted The Wizard of Oz for the London stage in collaboration with Jeremy Sams--who directed it in the West End in early 2011, then in Toronto and now on the current U.S. Tour.

Even more notably for musical theater buffs, to supplement the great movie songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, Webber wrote a good handful of new tunes together with lyricist Tim Rice.

Webber and Rice famously wrote Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita together, but only one minor musical--that I hadn't known of until this moment--since, and that was in 1986. Of course, they also had great success separately; Webber most notably with Cats and The Phantom of the Opera; Rice with Chess and The Lion King.

So just for curiosity's sake, this trip to Oz was rather substantive.

And while the new songs aren't as joyous or great as those from the MGM film, much of Stephen Schwartz' Wicked or the best of Webber and/or Rice's oeuvre--I could have listened to them in advance on Spotify but didn't--they also aren't duds and serve to help make The Wizard of Oz work as live theater.

"Nobody Understands Me" and "Wonders of the World" help flesh out the pre-Oz Kansas scenario, while the Wizard's (Jay Brazeau) Act 1 closer "Bring Me the Broomstick" and "Already Home" near the end of the show have appealing flourishes reminiscent of Webber & Rice's more famed work.

That said, Act 2 suffers a bit for its scarcity of readily-hummable songs from the movie.

But along with strong vocal performances--most notably from (besides Wade) Broadway vet Jacqueline Piro Donovan as the Wicked Witch of the West and Jamie McKnight as the Scarecrow--the production values of this Canadian Equity tour are very impressive.

The sets and costumes--both credited to Robert Jones--should satisfy those with a fond affinity for the movie, yet stand on their own originality as well. The choreography by Arlene Phillips is stellar, particularly in enabling the ensemble to embody Munchkins with believability.

Director Sams employs some very clever touches--including some wonderfully sardonic crows that mock Scarecrow--and along with Wade as Dorothy, her little dog too (the astonishingly well-trained Nigel as Toto) is quite delightful.

So there are plenty of good reasons for you--with or without young ones--to be off to see the wizard, but this largely wonderful Wizard of Oz is only in Chicago through Sunday.

Given the full balcony on Thursday night, perhaps Dorothy should stick around longer before clicking her heels and heading home (or more accurately to St. Louis, where the tour goes next).

But discount tickets for some weekend shows are currently listed on both HotTix and Goldstar.

So if you still can, come out, come out wherever you are.

It certainly won't replace the movie in your memory, or perhaps even in your children's affection, but this really good Wizard should grant your wish for terrific live entertainment quite suitable--even delightful--for all ages. 

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