Under the Rainbow 

Playhouse's Wizard of Oz has magic. If, that is, you believe in such things.

Do the monkeys fly? Yes, they fly. Well, they swing about a bit. It's pretty tragic, really.

But does the witch fly? Oh my, yes, but only once that I recall and very early in the show. It happens fast and flawlessly and is really quite spectacular. It gives the impression that you are about to see something special. And that impression is not entirely false.

But does the witch melt? Oh God, yes, yes, yes, of course the witch melts. What a stupid, stupid question. You simply cannot do The Wizard of Oz if the witch doesn't melt. It is a law, most likely. Next?

Okay, smart guy, how does Playhouse on the Square pull off a tornado on stage? Please, ask a hard one next time. They do it with projection, silly. This is the 21st century. We have the technology to project a black-and-white swirl that eventually turns into a colorful swirl while little pieces of Kansas fly offstage on wires. And before you even ask, yes, the Wizard is introduced as a big green head projected on curtains. He's more frightening on celluloid but not nearly as bizarre. And for your complete edification, everything that happens in the movie also happens in the play. That is the point of this incarnation of Frank Baum's classic story. Okay, okay, so the Scarecrow doesn't get set on fire, but that's the only real deviation from MGM's solid-gold standard.

But does it work? Well, when it works, it works. And for the kiddies in the crowd (possibly the reigning majority), it seems to work every time. Then again, when the Wicked Witch of the West has to run around stage, manually disconnecting her monkeys from their flying harnesses so they can stop swinging around helplessly and go do her evil bidding, the magic disappears. It suddenly morphs into gimmickry. And while director Shorey Walker has done what she can to make this show her own, gimmickry is really what it's all about.

This Wizard of Oz tries to be faithful to the film. It also tries to be original. Now let's be frank: You just can't have it both ways. The original songs are all here (even Harold Arlen's "Jitterbug," a number that was shot but cut from the film). But all those songs you grew up with and know by heart have been -- ahem -- brought up to date. Hey, doesn't everybody want to hear "Over the Rainbow" given a hip, new soft-rock treatment yet again? It's difficult to think of the play's few deviations from the source material as anything approaching improvement. In fact, this production, when not busy appropriating, fairly revels in fixing things never broken to begin with.

I assume there is no need to retell this tale. Little orphan Dorothy, raised by her uncle and aunt in Kansas, is swept away in a cyclone to the merry old fairyland of Oz, where she meets a good witch and a bad witch and a tin man and a scarecrow and a cowardly lion. I didn't think so. And that's part of the problem. If you're going to almost imitate this classic film more than 60 years after the fact, there is no avoiding a touch of post-modernism. There are countless winks (and snaps and "thank ya, boys") to the extra, occasionally subcultural meanings this too-familiar film has picked up over the years. Can anyone say "friends of Dorothy"? Fabulous. And while these self-conscious moments fly by (and well over the kiddies' heads), they are almost annoying. Part of The Wizard of Oz's charm is its childlike sincerity and too many winks and nudges can spoil the rainbow stew. Homage is a dish best served simply, without garnish. And po-mo or not, it's hard to see African Americans dressed up like crows putting on a full-fledged minstrel show without your flinching just a little bit.

This past Sunday's matinee was low on energy. The voices all seemed a little tired and shaky. Then again, anyone who goes to sit in the dark and watch a Sunday matinee on a beautiful spring day deserves everything they get. It's a proven recipe for disappointment.

Angela Groeschen does a smashing job as Dorothy Gale, calling to mind Judy Garland without ever doing an exact imitation. Most impressively, she never lets Toto upstage her, a feat anyone who has ever worked with an animal should certainly envy. It would have been nice to see just a little more character from the actors who play Dorothy's famous friends and a little less mugging from the Wizard. But all grumbling aside, if you want to see a nicely done live production of a movie you grew up loving, here it is. Buy your ticket, enjoy the ride. A trip to Playhouse is certainly cheaper than a day at Disney World. And it's a heckuva lot closer, to boot.

Through April 18th



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