The Wizard of Oz is part of American entertainment’s DNA. Since its publication in 1900, L. Frank Baum’s book, and the films and stage versions to follow, have been celebrated and analyzed as a political allegory, a coming of age story, and even a spiritual quest. The 1939 film won Academy Awards for best song and best score, losing out for Best Picture to none other than Gone With The Wind. For decades the once-a-year television broadcast made it a touchstone of Boomer culture. The stage adaptations began cropping up soon after the book’s publication.
Oz is now at The Muni as the summer finale with a fine cast and a creatively adventurous and entertaining production.
The real stars of the show are the children, whether as adorable Munchkins, mocking crows or threatening Jitterbugs and Flying Monkeys.
A kid-friendly show brings out something special in the Muni experience. On opening night, the lakeside theater was comfortably packed, the atmosphere amid lawn chairs and coolers communal and casual, with children cavorting on blankets.
And with an iconic show like Oz, the audience knew what to expect, with some of their number prepared to participate in the pageantry. And they did.
It started tentatively, with a few from the crowd echoing the Munchkins, “Follow the yellow brick road.” Later came a roar of “Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh, my!” It wasn’t a standing ovation, but it was something more heartfelt and genuine, and a lovely moment in the theater.
While memories of the movie bring to mind twisters, the pomp of Oz, melting witches and those flying monkeys, the show is at heart a story of intimacy, of family and community, of loss and longing, and an exploration of whether intimacy and trust can withstand the forces of hate and fear. The songs are pleas for understanding and acceptance.
As Dorothy, Annie Fulgenzi is the heart of the show, exceeding our expectations and revealing something true about the character. Dorothy, after all, is very young, younger than we remember. Judy Garland was already 16 in 1939. The Dorothy in the Baum books is 12 years old. She is headstrong. She has agency or, as it was termed then, “spunk.” But she is an orphan, and she is vulnerable.
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” is the heartfelt plea of a misunderstood girl who suddenly sees her home as a place of risk and danger. The power of the work is that the threats Dorothy faces are real to her and immediate, and Fulgenzi’s version is less an anthem but, more appropriately, a plaintive cry.
Is her beloved dog Toto her last link to her birth parents? If so, Miss Gulch and The Wicked Witch (well played by Carolyn Fleischli) embody an existential threat. And that “somewhere” is not necessarily the big city or adulthood, but a longing for a sense of belonging, of peace and of safety.
Tamara Bivins and Mark Anderson give steady and loving life to Dorothy’s Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, as well as their Oz counterparts Glinda the Good Witch and the Emerald City doorkeeper.
Anna McFarland and Connor McNamara are codirectors and they have given us a fine production. McNamara is credited as set designer, and the stage action is integrated with projected images, video footage and a live video feed. We experience Kansas’s expansiveness, the grandeur of Oz, and also the intimacy that the story demands. It is a creatively and technically advanced approach, and a challenge in any environment, but especially outdoors. With a few glitches, it works well.
While there is no credit for costume design (Cassie Reiterman is listed as coordinator), the costumes were a step above the usual at The Muni, and indeed, for many institutional theaters in the area. In the Munchkin Land sequence, they provided an entire landscape of color and pattern.
L. Frank Baum himself was the first to adapt The Wizard of Oz into a musical extravaganza. On Broadway, notable modern variations on the old tale include The Wiz and Wicked. The Muni’s version is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) adaptation, which apparently uses all of the dialogue from the 1939 film, and includes an entire number, “The Jitterbug,” that was cut.
The faithfulness to the movie is both the RSC version’s greatest strength and its Achilles heel. The film’s climactic scenes are totally cinematic, and difficult to capture on stage. Including the extended “The Jitterbug” sequence, in which the Wicked Witch attacks our heroes with wildly dancing bugs, throws the climax off track and the tone and style of the music really don’t match the rest of the show’s songs. Nevertheless, the choreographer Casey Tester has deployed her forces with great charm and inventiveness. Perhaps the sequence was just a bit too long.
But soon enough, we are back at Oz with the Wizard’s misfiring balloon escape and then finally home in Kansas, for the reunion and denouement. John O’Connor plays both The Wizard and the at-first-creepy-then-trustworthy Professor Marvel with an appropriate combination of distraction and kindliness.
The best aspect of this adaptation is its accuracy in recreating the central relationships between Dorothy and the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion.
Interpretation is usually seen as superior to imitation, but the actors from the 1939 film are so emblematic that they have become creatures of tradition and convention. For example, in so many ways the character of the Cowardly Lion really is the late, great Bert Lahr, the New York-born, German-Jewish vaudevillian.
This does not make the accomplishments and fine performance by Mac Warren (also doubling, as is tradition, Zeke in the Kansas scenes) any less delightful. Instead it is one of this production’s greatest pleasures, as are the performances by Jim Dahlquist as the Scarecrow and Jeremy Goeckner as the Tin Man. Along with Fulgenzi’s Dorothy, they bring the familiar to new life, and we are grateful.
It is worth noting that Judy Williams is credited as Dog Trainer, and her canine “Arlen” is cited with multiple productions of Oz and Gypsy. This dog is a true friend to Dorothy, and to all of us.
The Wizard of Oz continues at the Springfield Muni through Sunday, Aug. 11. Performances at 8 p.m..
Dennis Thread is a freelance writer/filmmaker/creative director with experience on Broadway, television, opera, documentaries and in corporate and institutional communications. He is a Springfield native recently returned.