Baltimore is off to see the wizard! The Wonderful Wizard of Oz! Following the yellow brick road all the way from Toronto the touring production of the MGM film classic The Wizard of Oz touches down at The Lyric Opera House for a limited engagement. Adapted by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams, this new musical production, with original Music by Harold Arlen and Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, features a whirlwind of technological updates that brings all of the iconic scenes and characters to radiant new life upon the stage. Featuring new music by Webber with additional lyrics provided by Tim Rice, the magic of Oz is now accessible to a whole new generation; preserved in all its glory with all the original story elements glittering in all their glory. A wondrous new way to experience a timeless classic that has touched the heart of millions around the world, this production Directed by Jeremy Sams, is a whimsical delight for all to behold.
The newest addition to the Oz journey is not the exciting new songs or music featured by these brilliant composers but rather the fluidly seamless integration of video projections that were designed by Jon Driscoll and recreated for this tour by Daniel Brodie. Allowing for intense and incredible special effects moments for scenes like the tornado and the flying monkeys, these digital projections feel like a natural part of the performance and are so life like that it is hard to tell that they are little more than dancing light images upon a hidden scrim. The tornado transition is handled divinely and really mystifies the audience as it takes over the entire stage.
Costume Designer Robert Jones enhances the fantasy world of Oz with everything in his magical bag of tricks. Going from the grungy browns and drab grays of farm life in Kansas to vibrant Technicolor patterns in Oz is no small feat, but Jones excels with flying colors. The outfits seen in the Emerald City numbers are the most impressive; a series of 1920’s and 1930’s inspired suits and dresses in varying shades of green with whimsical accents. This look in particular pays homage to the time period of the original movie and to the current outlandish look of the citizens of Oz from the popular musical Wicked.
Director Jeremy Sams finds ways to make this musical a brand new production all its own. This is not the movie, it’s not any previous version of The Wizard of Oz musical as you might know it, and it’s not Wicked, but it features nods, homages, tributes, and elements of all that make it familiar and yet exhilaratingly new for all who see it. Choreographer Arlene Philips infuses fun and fancy dancing into the larger numbers while still keeping some of the familiar footwork in her routines to echo Sams’ sentiments of homage in her work. The Munchkins in particular, bathed in various shades of bluebell blue, have a great deal of energetic giddy dancing designed by Philips that keeps the audience completely mesmerized from the time they pop out of their flowery hiding places to the time Dorothy embarks on the first leg of her journey.
With Andrew Lloyd Webber having new music and Tim Rice adding new lyrics, it’s no wonder that exceptional talent has been packed into the entire cast to fill the house with sensational sound as each of these new songs are sung. The ensemble, guided by Musical Director David Andrews Rogers, creates powerful blasts of sound both cheerful and delightful. Numbers like “The Merry Old Land of Oz” become show stopping filled with the bursting sound of an eager ensemble. While “Red Shoes Blues” featuring the ‘Winkies’ is a much more serious, but equally powerful number.
It wouldn’t be an epic journey without a good guy and a bad guy, and naturally in the merry old land of Oz those character roles are fulfilled by Glinda (Robin Evan Willis) and The Wicked Witch of the West (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan.) Two women with stunning voices and vivacious stage chemistry, facing off at every opportunity; they practically bring the house down in their own respective rights. Willis, whose dress is a pure reflection of glitter, is chipper, sunny, and good-natured. Bringing a hybrid of influences to her character portrayal, both from the original MGM film and Wicked, Willis creates a unique version of Glinda which has never previously been experienced. Her dulcet voice sweeps the rafters for “Already Home” and her instigation scenes with the Wicked Witch are absolutely a hilarious scream.
Donovan, as the witch in green, is a scream all her own. With a fiery attitude and a sassy belt that would terrify even the most fearless of her flying monkeys, she owns the role with panache and perfection. “Red Shoes Blues” is a ferociously intense number delivered with vocal punches of saucy attitude and fierce vocal belts that leave the audience in awe of her musical prowess. Donovan even gets to mingle in the audience for the infamous “Surrender Dorothy” scene, taking her chance to terrify and delight all around her; a truly marvelous performance.
The trio of ragtag friends never looked so impressive in their reinvented existences. Scarecrow (Jamie McKnight) The Tin Man (at this performance John Edwards) and The Cowardly Lion (Lee MacDougall) band together to make Dorothy’s journey to Oz far more entertaining. The trio have a great sense of friendship blended among them, each doing their part to stand out and shine throughout the performance. McKnight, as the straw man, brings a west-coast “bro” stupidity to the character which lands surprisingly well with the audience as he frequently forgets things, as any man with a brain would be prone to doing. Edwards, as the man without a heart, displays brilliant tap movements during his solo “If I Only Had a Heart.” MacDougall infuses his cowardly character with a humorous flamboyance that would make any Broadway fop proud. Together the trio each find their moments, truly making these character their own while simultaneously finding a balance of tributary nods to characters that have come before them.
The Wizard (Jay Brazeau) is quite the presence upon the stage. Starting off as the quirky Professor Marvel, Brazeau delivers kooky realness in his portrayal before becoming the terrifying apparation in Oz. It isn’t until he’s revealed to be little more than a very good man but a very bad wizard that his heart shines through in the matter. “Bring Me the Broomstick” (one of the new added musical numbers) is a startling solo featured at the end of Act I with score and emotional intonation not dissimilar to various songs performed by the title character from Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. Brazeau delivers it with a ferocity that sends shivers up your spine; a true presence on the stage despite being little more than a haunting projection at this point.
As for Dorothy (Julia McLellan) the age old lesson, “there’s no place like home” comes shining through in her gorgeous voice. At first airy and reserved for “Nobody Understands Me” it seems skeptical that McLellan is suited for the role, but an enormous belt and hold of pure vocal bliss at the end of “Over the Rainbow” quickly proves that she is an excellent candidate. Developing a true back story for the character of Dorothy, McLellan digs into the abandoned farm girl roots and carries them with her throughout the performance so that the character’s arch and transformation are that much clearer. Her duet lines featured in “Already Home” are touching; a touching and brilliant performance given by a truly talented young woman.
Hurry off down the yellow brick road to The Lyric Opera House before someone drops a house on this production and it, much like the wicked witch, is gone forever!
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
The Wizard of Oz plays through June 1, 2014 at The Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric — 110 West Mount Royale Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call (410) 900-1150, or purchase them online.