REVIEW: The wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz GigCity EdmontonThere is no way of escaping the infernal ear worm music of The Wizard of Oz.

The 1939 MGM Technicolor extravaganza featured words and music from Harold Arlen and “Yip” Harburg and the songs have woven themselves into the fabric of our lives. If things are difficult we Follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City. Leaving on a family adventure we might sing We’re Off To See the Wizard. And who among us, contemplating a particularly difficult exam, has not hummed If I Only Had a Brain?

And then there is the Academy Award-winning Over the Rainbow, dubbed the No. 1 movie song of the 20th century by the American Film Institute. Memorably it was sung by a 16-year-old Judy Garland as Kansas farm girl Dorothy Gale, alone on the prairie, longing for a place “behind the moon, beyond the rain.” It might be noted here that the suits of MGM – including studio head Louis B. Mayer – thought a yearning ballad so close to the opening of the film was a downer and so had it removed. Luckily, producer Arthur Freed prevailed and it was reinstated.

The Wizard of Oz GigCity EdmontonThe original songs still provide the spiritual anchor of a new production from Broadway Across Canada that opened Tuesday night at the Jubilee Auditorium, although obsessives may note that Cowardly Lion’s If I Were King of the Forest has been scrubbed and a sprinkle of new songs from uber Broadway composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (with words from his long-time lyricist Tim Rice) have been inserted. The new songs won’t send you over the rainbow, but they are pleasant enough. In fact, they turn the movie into a genuine stage musical – filling musical and dramatic holes left by the original. For instance, the Wicked Witch of the West (enduringly played in the movie by a green-faced Margaret Hamilton and here enthusiastically delivered by Shani Hadjian) snags a character boost by getting her own song, The Red Shoes Blues. Both Professor Marvel (Mark A. Harmon, also playing the Wizard) and good witch Glinda (Rachel Womble) get new songs of their own.

Director Jeremy Sams has re-envisioned much of the original by adding wit and spectacle. There are a number of high-energy dances (particularly one with staccato sticks from choreographer Arlene Philips), all of which serve to give the production an impressive internal life of its own while not merely attempting to mirror the movie. Many of the set pieces have echoes of the original, like the sepia of the storm-blasted prairie turning into a burst of technicolour when Dorothy opens that fabled door. There is enough here to please Wizard purists – and those looking for a contemporary entertainment.

The Wizard of Oz GigCity EdmontonThe production is a compendium of modern theatrical special effects. There is a massive (and scary) tornado that seems to encompass the whole theatre. Dorothy’s spinning flight is certainly a tribute to what staging and projection can do. Monkeys fly by the dozens and the witch zooms around on her broom. Then she is, quite satisfactorily, melted away – “liquidated,” dryly observes the Wizard – by (spoiler alert) Dorothy’s pail of water.

Morgan Reynold’s Scarecrow wont erase memories of Ray Bolger, but the man is built from rubber bands and, my, can he dance. Jay McGill is suitably wistful as the heart deprived Tin Man and Aaron Fried impresses as the Cowardly Lion – despite the loss of his big song. Harmon’s wizard is “great and terrible” indeed and later, when exposed, the actor allows us to see that at heart he is as he observes, “A good man. I’m just a terrible wizard.” If everyone else weren’t so darn good, Toto (played by a remarkable dog named Nigel) would run off with the show.

Sarah Lasko as Dorothy has a tough job because both her songs and dialogue have entered our genetic structure via Judy Garland’s performance. But she brings a sweet freshness and spunk to the role. Perhaps she lacks the aching vulnerability of Garland, but she has a first-rate set of pipes of her own – particularly in Over the Rainbow, where, abandoning Garland’s wistfully intimate reading, she effectively turns the song into a rouser that will lift you out of your seat.

This is one yellow brick road you might want to follow.

The Wizard of Oz plays at the Jubilee Auditorium through Sunday, Feb. 28.

The Wizard of Oz GigCity Edmonton