Theatrical productions presented as near re-creations of hit films often find themselves in an awkward catch-22. Standing upon a rigidly defined, iconic brand that’s practically guaranteed to draw a steady stream of nostalgic fans, such shows are a safer budgetary bet for risk-averse producers. But they cost in other ways, namely in artistic independence. Their chief task is not to innovate, but to imitate. The Wizard of Oz North American tour, directed by Jeremy Sams and playing now at the National Theatre, is a masterful, magical imitation of the infamous 1939 MGM film. But originalists and avant-guardians alike may need to tamper their expectations, for its unsettling mix of old and new is unlikely to leave either fully satisfied.
The cast, led by the loveable Sarah Lasko, is brimming with all the enchanting characteristics demanded by any successful Oz production. Every expression, from the hard-nosed grit of Dorothy’s sepia-toned farming family, to the dazzling lusciousness of the people of Oz, is crisply articulated. Lasko, with her light, heady singing voice, presents a slightly whinier Dorothy than Judy Garland’s unassuming original, but by curtain close, succeeds in winning the audience over with a balancing charm. Meanwhile, Shani Hadjian turns up the devious dial with her intense, convincing interpretation of the Wicked Witch of the West. Other crowd favorites include a sassier Cowardly Lion and a brawnier tin man, played by Aaron Fried and Jay McGill, respectively.
An adroit, enthusiastic company of singers and dancers delivers generously on all of the show-stopping musical numbers you would expect, with a few new additions by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber. Most memorable is the Wicked Witch’s very own solo number, “Red Shoes Blues” and a cute little ditty, “Wonders of the World,” performed by professor Marvel to Dorothy at his camp back in Kansas. These new pieces were incorporated with restraint, careful not to threaten the show’s essential musical progression. Their tepid application may leave the audience with mixed feelings over their value and memorability.
The most exciting new features of this staged production are probably thanks to the 21st century innovations it employs, particularly the use of a massive projection system that beams some of the most engulfing scenes out in front of the audience at a harrowing scale that feels something like IMAX. Moments like Dorothy’s tornado-induced transportation to Oz, Glenda’s poppy-neutralizing snowstorm, and the witch’s haunted forest are jarringly animated in 3D before your eyes.
The Wizard of Oz is known for its intricate, ostentatious costumes and lush scenery, which set and costume designer, Robert Jones, does not disappoint in replicating. Some liberties are taken here. For example, the munchkins sport matching blue attire, and the guards at the witch’s castle are more suave than slimy. Audience members won’t miss Jones’ riskier, but rewarding decision to overhaul the looks of both the witches, good and bad, swapping out hats and tiaras for pointy, swirly wigs.
Venture down the yellow brick road once again, but do so with an open mind. If you’re looking for a theatrical carbon copy of the original MGM film, you may risk being let down. While a substantial amount of the original script and score is preserved, including the most salient lines and moments (yes, the Lullaby League and Lollypop Guild still appear!), just remember, we’re not in 1939 anymore, Toto.
Running Time: 2 hours, 18 minutes long, with a 20 minute intermission.