Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Theater review: With this 'Wizard,' you're better off with the movie

Noah Aberlin, Cassie Okenka, Jason Simon
 and Chris Kind in The Wizard of Oz.

By Hap Erstein

When critics complain about the preponderance of musicals today based on movies, what irks us the most are shows like The Wizard of Oz, which is slavishly faithful to the celluloid footprint, with a minimum of originality in its adaptation to the stage. 

The non-union touring production at the Kravis Center this week, which has its roots in a Royal Shakespeare Company panto from over a decade ago, might work as a youngster’s introduction to theater, but renting the DVD of the 1939 classic movie would be a lot cheaper evening’s entertainment.

Director Nigel West and adaptor John Kane hit most of the iconic moments in the film and suggest equivalents for most of the memorable visuals. (OK, the Horse of a Different Color had to go, but that is the rare exception.) And when they cannot come up with a way to reproduce an effect live, they resort back to film, as they do for the tornado and the resulting flying house.

The bigger problem is that West has encouraged his actors to mimic the performances in the movie version of L. Frank Baum’s timeless tale. Cassie Okenka has a lovely singing voice and her Over the Rainbow is a stirring beginning to the Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg score, but her line recitations are disconcertingly similar to those of Judy Garland. 

Worse is Jason Simon, who could have turned the Cowardly Lion into an original comic character, but instead merely channels the delivery and mannerisms of Bert Lahr. Chris Kind (Tinman) and Noah Aberlin (Scarecrow) fare a little better, taking advantage of the physicality built into their characters.

At least choreographer Leigh Constantine seems to have been given free rein to inject some ingenuity into the show’s dances, as he does with the sleep-inducing poppies, the nattily dressed crows and the elegant, animated trees.

Late in the second act, the show makes it most pronounced divergence from the Wizard of Oz movie with a jazzy production number, Jitterbug, which was filmed 70 years ago, but ended up on the cutting-room floor. By this point in the evening, we are hungry for something -- anything -- original, and this artifact of the period dance craze is very welcome, even if it does slow down the story at an inopportune time.

This traveling stage production has a tradition of enlisting a local dance studio’s moppets into the company to fill in as Munchkins and as the Wicked Witch’s palace guard, the Winkies. Here the assignment goes to The Academy of Ballet Florida, with the school’s principal Donna Morgan handling the staging of her brood. They do fine, even if they do stick out as obvious tots, but then the whole company seems a tad young for their roles.

Director West concedes that this Wizard of Oz is mainly aimed at youngsters, though even they are likely to grow bored if they know the movie well enough. For adults, at least there are the cherished songs to enjoy, the musical equivalent of comfort food. 

But if your youngsters remark on the way home that they prefer the movie over the overlong stage show, they may have a future in the reviewing game.

THE WIZARD OF OZ, Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday. Tickets; $25-$75. Call: (561) 832-7469 or (800) 572-8471.     

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