The yellow brick road at Skylight Music Theatre leads to a refreshing evening of holiday entertainment that provides all the cheerful sentimentality you need for the season without overdosing you on Santas, snowflakes and carols.
The Wizard of Oz, a 1987 stage adaption of the classic MGM movie based on the books of L. Frank Baum, is a daunting work to stage. It demands numerous set changes, props and special effects. The big screen version went through five directors and 14 writers before the studio finally hollered, “Print.’
Linda Brovsky, who directs the Skylight production, was charged with creating something very big on a small budget — and it shows. But she and her team have managed to use that challenge to create something more enchanting than flashy pyrotechnic displays and massive sets can offer.
Scenic and lighting designer Peter Dean Beck and costume designer Kristy Leigh Hall have created imaginative but low-cost substitutes for elaborate stagecraft. Cardboard cutouts serve as trees and flowers, while actors on rolling stools covered by their costumes portray the Munchkins. Such “homemade” touches add a charming sort of tongue-in-cheek dimension to the production.
In addition to presenting a decidedly more upbeat take on the source material than the movie did, this production introduces musical numbers cut from the film. The most notable of these is “Jitterbug,” featuring the Wicked Witch’s subjects, who are dubbed “Winkies.” Much lower-tech and less threatening than the movie’s flying monkeys, the Winkies match the cartoonish spirit of this show.
The pared-down trimmings of the production put the onus on the backs of the performers, all of whom are up to the task and capably supported by a 10-piece orchestra directed by Leslie B. Dunner.
Susan Wiedmeyer is an earnest and wide-eyed Dorothy who manages to communicate fear and longing without crossing over the line of comedy. Her Dorothy is less angsty than Judy Garland’s fame-making screen version, but Wiedmeyer’s silvery, well-trained voice has the power to sell “Over the Rainbow” and Dorothy’s other demanding musical numbers.
As the dog-hating Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West, Liz Norton camps it up quite a bit, to the great delight of the production’s opening night audience. Tall and menacing, with long, pointing fingers, Norton in her green makeup and oversized black hat has the stuff to make a small child quake in terror. But her cackle is more reminiscent of an acerbic Elaine Stritch than a child-killing monster. She satisfies the role while maintaining the comedic game plan.
Long, loose-limbed Ryan Cappleman is physically perfect as the rubbery scarecrow. As the show’s lead dancer, he seems capable of more than choreographer Pam Kriger has given him, but he’s delightful to watch. As the Tin Man, Doug Clemons displays a beautiful voice and the prerequisite soufulness.
Andrew Varela is a standout as the Cowardly Lion and a ringer for the film’s lion — Burt Lahr. With a great voice, a hilarious take on the character and excellent comic timing, he’s the king of the Oz-bound trekkers. Varela memorably milks “If I Only Had the Nerve” and “King of the Forest.”
On opening night, however, the scene-stealer was Hillie, the adorable and patient cairn terrier playing Toto. Hillie seemed to growl and bark perfectly on cue. She demonstrates why W.C. Fields cautioned fellow actors, “Never work with animals or children.” She’s almost distractingly cute at times.
But she can’t overwhelm the colorful characters and good cheer of this musical. With its nostalgic theme, familiar music and narrative of rebirth, it’s a perfect holiday show.
Skylight Music Theatre’s The Wizard of Oz continues at Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, through Jan. 4. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Wed. through Sun., with 2:30 p.m. matinees on Sat. and Sun. Tickets range from $22.50–$85. To order, call 414-291-7800 or visit www.skylightmusictheate.org.