L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its sequels may lack the sparkling dexterity of Lewis Carroll's Alice or the fresh whimsy of Barrie's Peter Pan, yet it is our great American fairy tale, as patriotic as an Uncle Sam piggy bank and as indelible as wheat. Like that noble grain, it has infinite uses.
Back in 1903 Baum himself turned it into a musical extravaganza that took the century by storm. Then came a series of silent films also produced by Baum. However, it wasn't until 1939 that it reached its apotheosis, when MGM acquired the highest elements of Broadway sophistication with songwriters Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg; vaudeville and burlesque experts Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Burt Lahr; and, above all, movie-star charisma with Judy Garland, in one of the greatest meldings of personality and role. With all the gilded gears of the MGM dream factory, they produced a once-in-a-century film masterpiece that eclipsed Baum's original works and all other adaptations.
Now, in an age that lacks resources in imagination, there is a return to the MGM film for a new stage adaptation that can be charitably looked on as a pageant, a secular attempt to summon facsimiles of old beloved icons acting out a sacred ritual--ruby slippers and all. Given a lack of inspiration, space limitations, and the impetus to create something fresh, capable technicians have created a pleasing recreation, approximating a Disney theme-park ride.
In a sentimental tribute to a surviving remnant of MGM, Mickey Rooney, a close friend of the original Dorothy, was cast in the Frank Morgan dual role of Professor Marvel and the Wizard. Due to the cherished star's illness, first-nighters had to settle for the competent services of an understudy. Yet nostalgia was what the evening was all about, since the score, the evocative Herbert Stothart background orchestrations, and the majority of the script were mostly appropriated from the '39 original.
The most fun came with the unexpected additions. A Frenchified Wicked Witch (Liliane Montevecci), clad in suggestive black velvet clinging pants, gave a performance saucily wedged between Grimm's Fairy Tales and Folies Bergeres. Emphasizing the humorous to the detriment of the menacing aspects of her role, she goosed up the proceedings considerably though lessening dramatic contrast. Even the grotesque Flying Monkeys hammed it up for laughs, and the treatment sometimes bordered on the burlesque.
The most unexpected treat for fans of the film was Montevecci's growling rendition of the fabled cut "Jitterbug" number from the film. After her singing, it was danced by the hepcat bugs themselves and the Flying Monkeys, then by Dorothy and her cohorts in the Haunted Forest. After being lost for about sixty years, its reappearance here is like discovering a rare treasure.
There are a number of other treats, even for the most adamant of Oz-ophiles, including red-lipped apple trees sprouting sexy innuendoes and striking chorus-girl poses. Borrowed from the '70s African-American stage version The Wiz were three singing and dancing crows to cut in on the Scarecrow's song. The Witch's poisoned poppies became life-sized dancing flowers.
It's a real bonanza for buffs of the score to hear the introductory verses to songs like "Over the Rainbow" (sung by Glinda here) and "If I Only Had a Brain," which were written after the movie's release by Harburg and Arlen.
The original film dialogue was trimmed somewhat, and, as might be expected, Munchkinland and the Emerald City have been greatly depopulated. (Some Munchkins in green did double-duty for taller denizens of Emerald City.)
Jessica Grove's Dorothy, Casey Colgan's Scarecrow, Dirk Lumbard's Tin Man, and Francis Ruvivier's Cowardly Lion are little more than amiable automatons attempting to replace the irreplaceable. They are thoroughly competent and professional, but bring little warmth or individuality to their roles. Toto, played by a real terrier, gave the warmest, most ingratiating performance of the evening, winning the hearts of all the young "whippersnappers" in the house.
Judging by the almost frightening sight of seeing grown men and women clapping to familiar tunes like "Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead!" and "We're Off to See the Wizard," the story is very obviously still giving faithful service to the young at heart and (at $45 a pop) the rich in wallet.
The Wizard of Oz, through February 21 at the Ohio Theatre, 1501 Euclid Ave., 216-771-4444.