Do we really need another retelling of L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz"? We have several recent and current musical versions that come quickly to mind: "The Wiz", "Wicked", last year's new musical "Was", and the mother of all cultural icons, MGM's 1939 beloved "The Wizard of Oz". Stage plays and movies, both dramatic and musical, have been made of this material since the first "Oz" book was published in 1900. Do we need another retelling? Apparently yes. The House Theatre production "The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz" is charming, riveting, illuminating, and all that good theatre should be. It touches on prior works through line readings and costume images, yet delightfully turns many images on their heads. And it is a lovely production, not to be missed.
This is the story we all know: a little girl named Dorothy (Paige Hoffman) and her dog Toto (played by Joey Steakley and a stuffed toy dog) are brought from Kansas via a cyclone funnel cloud to a mystical land called Oz, where most of the residents are small in stature, Witches both good (Carolyn Defrin) and Wicked (Molly Brennan) and a Wizard (Dennis Watkins) share reigning power over the people, and several friends meet on the road (a scatterbrained Scarecrow played by Stephen Taylor, a belligerent and stalwart Tin Woodsman played by Cliff Chamberlain, and a cowardly and lovable Lion played by Jake Minton) help each other to realize their dreams, and learn some lessons along the way.
The production is filled with instructional humor about life and family. The just-made-this-morning Scarecrow peppers Dorothy and the others with the questions of an articulate human four year old (and has an attention span just as long) such as "What's a family?", and she patiently answers "Just some people who love you I suppose." Dorothy reflects on the nature of power in groups: "When we stick together we don't have to be afraid." Glinda observes the power with which the people have imbued the Wizard and tells Dorothy, "You believed in him because you needed to." And when Dorothy realizes that the Wicked Witch will use the power of the boots for evil (Dorothy asks "What will you do with the boots when you have them?" and the Witch answers "What won't I do?"), Dorothy's applause line is "I am the one wearing the books" and she reclaims her power.
Several lines resonate because they come specifically from or make reference to the MGM movie or the people who are in it. When the Wicked Witch meets Dorothy on the road, she says "all in good time dearest, you are a pretty young thing" and later threatens "I'll get you my pretty and your little dog too." Dorothy says to the Wizard "I am small and meek and you are great and powerful." And we have Judy Garland and Margaret Hamilton and all the cast firmly planted in our heads. One reference that seemed facile and perhaps out of character is made by Joey Steakley as Toto, indicating the dog's indebtedness to Dorothy. Toto delivers the line "I am a Friend of Dorothy's" very archly, very fey, referencing the cultural identification of gay men to one another as "Friends of Dorothy", indicating both the movie and Garland's fan base, and perhaps other sources. This generates a laugh yet feels like a facile and false note among the references.
Sound design by Michael Griggs and original music by Kevin O'Donnell add immeasurably to the pleasure of this production. A particular case in point is the Act One closer in the poppy field before the group reaches the Emerald city. With a stand up microphone and musicians and the Tin Woodsman as lead singer (our erstwhile belligerent reluctant teammate) we get a raucous version of "Try A Little Tenderness." When Dorothy and her friends ring the doorbell at the door of the Emerald City, the bell's melody is the Arlen and Harberg tune from the 1939 film "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead". These are references to entertain us, but understanding them is not required to be carried away by this production.
The ensemble creates worlds with the equivalent of twigs and pieces of twine. Properties designer G. Warren Stiles and magic effects designer Dennis Watkins work wonders. Dorothy's house in a storm is evoked with a wooden bird house on a pole, spinning and twisting with the assistance of the dancer/performer below. Dorothy landing in Oz is called a "witch slayer" and the dimensions of life and death, black and white, are drawn quickly and firmly by lighting designer Ben Wilhelm. Costumes designed by Laurie Lamere Klapperich for the Woodsman, Scarecrow, and Lion and all of the characters play against the MGM musical memory we all have and still create a unique look for several, including our punky, beautifully green and tattooed Wicked Witch of the West. And the silver slippers in the original books and ruby slippers from the MGM movie are here funky and wonderful silver and ruby boots.
This is a piece directed and choreographed as a wash of cultural allusion, original creation, literary homage, and as such stands toe to toe, cheek to jowl, word for word, note for note, alongside other contemporary reworkings and remasterings and reconceptualizations of the 1900 Baum original children's book. "The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz" has emerged from the fertile minds and limbs of the House Theatre ensemble and was first presented to Chicago audiences in summer 2006 at the Viaduct Theatre. Lucky for us Northlight Theatre was able to provide a home for this smashing production for a few short days in early 2007. Here's hoping that this production finds other homes soon and has a long long life.