HOW TEMPTING IT would be to claim that the Ordway's staged adaptation of The Wizard of Oz lacks a brain, a heart, and a stiff shot of courage, and then leave it at that. But alas, it's not true--not entirely. Because while this maiden musical original from golden-boy producer Kevin McCollum is indeed short in the cerebral and coronary departments, the ambition of translating such a beloved movie to stage is plenty courageous. Courageous, or foolhardy. For, to me at least, the endeavor seems an exercise in predictable disappointment; why not just start fresh with, say, The Magical Monarch of Mo?
Like it or not, we are off to see the wizard. Part of the wizardry of recent blockbuster-mentality musicals has involved the wholesale theft of scores and the rough renovation of plot and character. So it is here, with bagman/director Worth Gardner and getaway car driver McCollum--although their approach to plot revision is more akin to rhinoplasty than rearranging faces. Which is to say that this pair have lopped off the Kansas bookends, demoted Dorothy to second fiddle, and replaced her with author L. Frank Baum. (For what it's worth, I first saw this approach adopted in a genial television bio-pic starring John Ritter.) The search for self-knowledge, then, has become Baum's; the Wicked Witch is now a physical manifestation of the self-doubt that prevents Baum from writing...The Wizard of Oz. Baum accompanies his fictional charge down the yellow brick road, feeding her lines and tinkering with his own script. Finally! The recursive musical comedy all the kids have been hankering for!
Revised revivals like this one are typically predicated upon the belief that the original book has become dated in ways that might offend contemporary sensibilities--though just as often, it was never any good to begin with. With Oz, the opposite is true. And so a listing of Gardner's other innovations reads as a catalogue of folly, each a substitution of bad for good. The Wicked Witch has become a wicked warlock in the Beetlejuice mode. Glinda, that paragon of kindness and luminous beauty is gone, replaced by pudgy ringmaster Baum. And the flying monkeys, those nightmare-inducing goons, have traded their bellhop uniforms for black body suits with built-in six-pack abs. These replacements are called "Elementals," creations of "soulless" thought and matter almost Heraclitean in their conceptual obscurity. They double as assorted henchmen, citizens of Oz, and angry apple trees.
That a director would attempt to outsmart a limited production budget--think of the fields of poppy, the tornados, the dread aerial simians--through narrative ingenuity is a welcome novelty in our modern theater-of-the-egregious. (While we're dispensing praise--and, regrettably, there isn't much to go around--I should note that I rather like the idea of new musicals originating at the Ordway.) But the audience is not paying $45 a head for artistic reinterpretation, and so the director dutifully totes out a Lion, a Scarecrow, and a Tin Man who can impersonate original actors Lahr, Bolger and Hale, while Dorothy shellacs her hair just like Judy Garland. Where are Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, and Nipsey Russell when you really need them?
At the opening of the second act, the actors oom-pa-pa their way through the overture in a rag tag instrumental ensemble: The Elementals forming a bell choir; the wicked witch strumming a banjo/mandolin; Dorothy soloing on a baritone sax. But where such whimsy proves winning in its exception, it also accentuates the canned rule--in this case, an unctuous backing score, part midi, part moog, that either oozes or wafts, depending on one's take. (For the record, the program calls it "orchestral design.") Mercifully, the ghost of Spike Jones haunts this digital machine, injecting a cartoon's worth of Splats! and Squishes! into the proceedings. Toto, Toto! I think we're finally having fun!
Also synthetic is the trumped-up emotion that closes the show. Witches have been melted, medals awarded, and inaccurate pythagorean theorems recited. Dorothy's race over the rainbow has been run. But there is no Kansas here. In fact, there is no Dorothy either. And so even though the character has been an intolerable interloper from the start, we must return to the plight of L. Frank Baum himself and his inspirational quest for gumption. The Elementals sing warm chords while digital piccolos trill. The Tin Man's artificial heart beat truer than this.
Yet, in the aftermath of a tornado of unfulfilled hype, at least one dream already has come true. Reading a (self-composed?) verse to christen the new Ordway leadership, gap-toothed glad-hander Norm Coleman introduced the opening night performance. "When I was a child," he started, "I wanted to be the Mayor of Munchkin Land." There's no place like home. CP
The Wizard of Oz runs through August 18 at the Ordway Music Theatre; 224-4222.