Theater Review: THE WIZARD OF OZ (National Tour)

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by Tony Frankel on September 20, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

NO HEART. NO BRAIN. NO NERVE. STAY HOME.

Just short of insulting, a Broadway Machine-styled version of the iconic film, The Wizard of Oz, opened at the Pantages this week. Instead of writing additional new material that matched the screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf (uncredited in the program), bookwriters Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams (who also directed) constantly undercut themselves, removing any real emotion and danger that made the story so credible. At every turn, they managed to lose their way as they dumbed down the Yellow Brick Road, adding unnecessarily offensive humor and forgettable songs (music by Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice) that do not even attempt to match the essence of Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg’s original tunes.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new production of "The Wizard of Oz" at the Pantages in Hollywood

Plenty of oil cans were used to grease the promotion machine well before Oz landed in L.A. Our Dorothy, Danielle Wade, won the televised talent contest on CBS’s Over the Rainbow, and performed in the Toronto production last January. Sadly, her character is given the “Nobody Understands Me” treatment right off the bat in a pseudo-song that, I’m not kidding, sounds strangely Celtic. And while Wade clearly has pipes, she lacks the vocal vulnerability and nuance that made Garland so inimitable. Forget any new back story: Dorothy is just a whiny adolescent who gets a trip to the Emerald City as thanks for her complaints; the powerful ticket-buying audience of teenaged girls that this show is aimed at should love that.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new production of "The Wizard of Oz" at the Pantages in Hollywood

Somewhere in Kansas, Dorothy must have visited an SS Gay Bar and religious revivals, because the Munchkins look and act like an Amish clan at an arthritis convention in Delft and the Winkies are mostly muscle-bound boys in black and reddish-brown leather with wrist bands and knee-high, goose-stepping boots (costumes by Robert Jones). On top of that, the Winkies are given a useless dance number after the Witch’s liquefaction while our heroes hang out. The quartet already has the broomstick, so why would they stay?  And if they stayed, why wouldn’t they be a part of the number? And why does Arlene Phillips’ choreography look like Flashdance and Starlight Express without the roller skates?

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new production of "The Wizard of Oz" at the Pantages in Hollywood

The combination of a lousy libretto and portrayals lacking in distinction is a detriment to all the characters; it’s impossible to feel empathy for anyone on that stage. Margaret Hamilton may have been over-the-top in the film, but she was both scary and threatening as the Wicked Witch. As played by Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, the most threatening presence in all of Oz comes off like the love child of Edith Prickley, Elphaba and Phyllis Diller. Mike Jackson’s Tin Man is given nothing to do or play and he ends up as bland as sheet metal. Lee MacDougall does his very best not to imitate the great Burt Lahr (“If I Were King of the Forest” has been vivisected), but doesn’t even bother to come up with his own take.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new production of "The Wizard of Oz" at the Pantages in Hollywood

By refusing to make this Oz either an homage or a reinvention, the creators drew a very safe line meant to satisfy a culture satiated by gimmickry. But then they crossed the line with an attempt at updated humor, added for easy laughs rather than to heighten storytelling. When the lion leans on the Tin Man (“I’m just a dandy lion”), the Tin Man takes a few steps back with revulsion that the lion could be gay. The nearly offensive gay stereotyping occurs again later when the lion admits proudly that he is “a friend of Dorothy’s.”

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new production of "The Wizard of Oz" at the Pantages in Hollywood

There’s a good idea with Scarecrow (a charming Jamie McKnight), who is so brainless that he keeps forgetting why they are going to the Emerald City, but it soon ends up as a one-note joke. Later, our creators (who no doubt found their comedy-stuffing hysterical on paper) have Scarecrow complain about that “pole up his a . .” Dorothy cuts him off, but the puerile and infantile joke remains up the audience’s collective a . . for the rest of the musical.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new production of "The Wizard of Oz" at the Pantages in Hollywood

When Dorothy tells the Scarecrow that she’ll miss him most of all, the Scarecrow turns his back, so painful is the loss of his new friend. Not to outdo themselves, Webber and Sams took the ONE moment that actually touches our heart and squashed it by having the Lion and Tin Man pipe up, “And what are we? We went on this trip with you, too,” etc. This from a Tin Man who just a scene earlier was bestowed a heart by the Wizard.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new production of "The Wizard of Oz" at the Pantages in Hollywood

Webber and Sams are also clueless as to musical construction, perfectly elucidated when the Wizard (an inoffensive Cedric Smith, who owes much of his success to Frank Morgan) commands that our heroes confiscate the Witch’s broom and then breaks into an unmemorable song saying the EXACT same thing as his dialogue with no new information. Songs are supposed to heighten the emotion of the dialogue, not repeat it.

Of course there’s some powerfully wicked stagecraft: Glinda’s entrance as she is flown in by Foy amidst sheer glittery fabric is stunning, and Jon Driscoll’s IMAX-sized video projections of flying monkeys and the twister are thrilling (“recreated” by Daniel Brodie, whatever that Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new production of "The Wizard of Oz" at the Pantages in Hollywoodmeans). But Robert Jones’s scenic design, which begins quite promisingly in the sepia-toned opening scene of the Gale farm, offers some of the cheapest-looking, plasticized sets in memory (except for the Witch’s turret), including a castered platform representing the Yellow Brick Road that looks like it was made by Hasbro.

We did have an amazing Toto, courtesy of William Berloni (it helps that the dog has no dialogue or songs). Yet when Toto, with leash, did not exit when running away from the Witch’s castle, he was pulled off stage by one of the Winkies. It was the one honest laugh of the night.

The main theme of The Wizard of Oz is that you already have what you need inside you to make it through life. So save your money. Believe me, while you’re itching to get out of the theater, the phrase “There’s no place like home” will take on a whole new meaning.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new production of "The Wizard of Oz" at the Pantages in Hollywoodphotos by Cylla Von Tiedemann

The Wizard of Oz
reviewed at The Hollywood Pantages
national Tour continues through June 9, 2014
national Tour continues through July, 2016
continues globally through 2018
for cities and tickets,
visit Wizard of Oz The Musical

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

John M September 22, 2013 at 10:48 pm

You got that right! What an emotionless mess.

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John Topping September 29, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Wow. And I had no desire to go just thinking that it was the movie transposed onto the stage. This sounds more dreadful than I could have imagined.

As you’ve described it in this review, the homophobia isn’t “nearly” offensive…it hits the bulls-eye.

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