The storyline for The Wizard of Oz, which opened Tuesday night at the Walton Arts Center, follows that of the 1939 movie that generations have seen time and again. It is ingrained in us and our culture in countless ways. But this show, seen in this production, makes it all wonderfully new and vibrant again — and even more relevant for today.
The show starts with Dorothy, who lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, and their farm hands attending to daily life on the farm. The costumes, lighting and set evoke a sepia-toned look that’s a perfect contrast for what’s to come.
There are obvious hints from the beginning as to which farm hand will become which of the three friends who accompany Dorothy, played by Danielle Wade, on her journey to the Land of Oz. Zeke, played by Jordan Bell, wears a coat with a belt that hangs down long behind him. Hickory, played by Mike Jackson, carries an ax. And Hunk, played by Jamie McKnight, is downright clumsy.
This new musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams (who also directs) is simply wonderful in every way. Webber added music and Tim Rice added lyrics to the basic songs created by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg for the classic film. (Arlen and Harburg won an Oscar for “Over the Rainbow.”) Lloyd Webber and Rice have collaborated on the successful shows Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita.
Dorothy expresses an intense feeling of not belonging in a new song, “Nobody Understands Me,” sung with her aunt and uncle. Then, Dorothy launches into the classic tune “Over the Rainbow,” wearing gray overalls, with her little dog by her side. Her version of this beloved song is perfect, as she describes longing for something different from her current life. It’s not a copy of Judy Garland in the movie; it’s honest and real, some lyrics even spoken at times. But then she ends with a rich, booming voice that holds the last note for a wonderfully long moment.
When Dorothy and Toto run away, they encounter Professor Marvel. He shows her a black-and-white slideshow of his favorite wonders of the world. As a vicious storm approaches, he sends her back home, where her uncle and the others are preparing for an approaching storm.
As for that storm: wow. Perfectly designed lighting flashes lightning bolts across the back of the stage. With a screen dropped at the front of the stage, a projection of a white, churning tornado makes that segment captivating and very realistic. (Those with young children might prepare them for the drama of this scene.) After the twister passes, the house and Dorothy travel down a tunnel and land on a witch in the faraway land of Oz — all through imagery projected onto the screen. This projection onto the screen is successfully used other times to transition between scenes and to convey certain effects.
Glinda the Good Witch, played by Robin Evan Willis, dramatically arrives on the scene, ascending from a high perch in a sparkling blue dress. An illuminated rainbow arches above the stage as the Munchkins, all dressed in delightful blue costumes of mismatched patterns, gleefully sing “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead” in this wonderful dance number.
The Wicked Witch of the West then arrives, perturbed that a house just smashed her sister. Played very well by Julia Juhas, this Wicked Witch is sassier and snarkier, and a bit less frightening, than the one in the movie. Still, the green-skinned witch threatens revenge on Dorothy and her little dog.
Dorothy, wearing the sparkling ruby slippers taken from the dead witch’s feet, soon sets off to see the Wizard, in hopes he can return her back to her family in Kansas. On her path, she first encounters the Scarecrow (McKnight) who is hysterical with his simplistic approach and deadpan lines. They then encounter the Tin Man (Jackson), who tap dances using his ax for a cane. As they walk frightened through the forest, chanting nervously about finding “lions and tigers and bears,” they collect a pussycat of a Lion (Bell).
The costumes for these three friends of Dorothy’s are wonderful. But what really makes the characters is the very distinct personalities the actors have created — still in the same vein yet different from the ones we know from the movie. Together, they share a rapport that is perfect for this stage production.
The Scarecrow, in particular, delivers many laugh-out-loud lines, such as, “Hey, I’ve got an idea. No, it’s gone.” The humor is simple but solid for all ages.
After getting delayed by the Wicked Witch’s spell, and falling asleep in the field of poppies, Dorothy and her friends finally arrive at the Emerald City, which is abuzz with song and dance, from a group dressed all in green. This ensemble provides a great dance number, and Dorothy’s blue dress magically turns to green on stage.
They eventually get in to see the Wizard, who only agrees to grant their wishes for a brain, heart, courage and going home if they bring him the Wicked Witch’s broom — knowing they’ll have to kill her to get it. The Wizard, played by Jay Brazeau, is especially good in this role. He’s particularly intimidating because his face is projected larger than life onto a big circle in the center of the set. As he sings a new song, “Bring Me the Broomstick,” it seems his mouth could eat up this group of travelers.
In the second act, the Wicked Witch offers another new tune, “Red Shoes Blues,” then sends her flying monkeys to fetch Dorothy and her friends. They only return with Dorothy, and her friends sneak in to try to rescue her. When the Witch is doused with water, she slowly melts down into the set piece on which she was perched.
The Winkies, who had been enslaved by the Wicked Witch, are thrilled with her death, and they perform a wonderful dance number in celebration. When they return the Wicked Witch’s broom to the Wizard, his identity as a basic man behind a curtain is revealed by Toto.
In a new song, “Already Home,” Glinda expresses to Dorothy that she doesn’t need any more help finding her way home — in fact, she never did. She had carried her home with her all along. This was a lovely song, perfectly wrapping up the sentiment of the show, and the vocal performances of both Glinda (Willis) and the entire chorus of singers were particularly good.
An additionally endearing tidbit about this show concerns the dog who plays the role of Toto. His real name is Nigel, and he was rescued six years ago from the Northeast Arkansas Humane Society by William Berloni, his guardian and trainer. The understudy for the role is Loki; also trained by Berloni, he was rescued from a puppy mill in Missouri.
The essence of the movie remains in this musical, but this presentation makes the story alive again both for new audiences and for those who have the songs and characters etched on their hearts and minds and souls. Children sitting in laps audibly asked their moms what was going to happen next, and adults old enough to have grandchildren joyfully clapped and sang along throughout the show.
We’re all looking for our own version of Oz. We have dreams and ambitions, face trials and tribulations, and, hopefully, eventually, find a real sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and joy.
We’re each on our own quest, as we yearn and actively strive for something beyond where we are now. But no one can tell us our path. We have to find that on our own, in our own time — and that process often is made easier with help from good friends, family and renewed confidence in ourselves.
Performances of The Wizard of Oz continue through Sunday at the Walton Arts Center. For tickets and information, call (479) 443-5600 or visit the website at waltonartscenter.org/.