It’s rare these days – and all the more warm and wonderful when it does happen – that we get to experience something wholly fresh and alive while at the same times and moments revisiting vivid and happy memories, an ideal of home we still love or long for.
Seeing the live stage version of The Wizard of Oz – running thru December 22nd on the always glorious and intimate Playhouse on the Square stage – brought all that and more. Instant nostalgia. Instant emotions. From the first instrumental cords of “Over the Rainbow,” before the curtains even parted, tears welled up in my eyes in happy anticipation that didn’t really stop until the last curtain.
Playhouse’s Oz is the 1987 Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, which closely resembles the 1939 film classic and is based bar for bar, tune for tune and almost word for word on the original Technicolor masterpiece. This version includes a few new bits, lyrics, and musical cues, but the rest will echo from right out of our deepest memories, or – flying monkeys anyone? – our childhood nightmares.
As adults of a certain age, Oz is a part of the culture we all know so intimately well that we bring baskets of hopes and feelings all our own into the theater. How will they handle the tornado? Will the yellow brick road be just thee right shade of yellow? Will Lion deliver my favorite lines just right? Will the witch’s cackle send shivers down my spine? And, will Toto be a real dog? With such emotional anticipation, our tendency is simply to hope that the production just doesn’t screw it up.
Well rest assured all you Dorothys, Scarecrows, Tin Mans and Lions, Playhouse’s production hits all the right steps, beats and – what an echo! – empty tin barrels, and delivers all the anticipated visuals and familiar sounds. And despite of all the dialogue and lyrics and music embedded in our DNA – even manages to reveal moments and bits we perhaps missed, or never fully learned. (The little fellows of the Lollipop Guild in Munchkin Land are well-represented in my brain, but who knew – oh that’s what they were saying?? – that Dorothy was also greeted by the Lullaby League?)
Director Whitney Branan, the actors and the crew all knew the baked-in comparisons they’d be up against, and they hardly miss a step. For this viewer, the projection of the Wizard could have been a bit more booming and intimidating in the Emerald City, there appeared to be a distracting technical glitch in the projection screen during Act II for the show I saw, and for the matinee I attended the actors seemed a little hurried in some of their line deliveries, missing some key comic beats in Act II.
But – my what a fuss you’re making! – these are mere quibbles, and are easily overshadowed by the delight and cleverness of the entire production. Scarecrow – embodied with flailing limbs and wonder by Danny Crowe – is accompanied by a rollicking chorus of a trio of crows that mocks, teases and caws during his rendition of “If I only had a brain.” Company member Cristian Nieves’s Tin Man and Tyler Brumback’s Lion bring just the right laughs and beats to their roles and renditions, respectively, of “If I only had a heart,” “If I only had the nerve,” and my personal favorite, of Lion’s “If I were the king of the forest.”
Company member Samantha Miller brings a new twist to her take as Mr. Marvel aka the Wizard, capturing Marvel’s/Wizard’s good-deed-doer quirks, fumbles and foibles. Amy P. Nabors, in her dual roles as Aunt ‘Em and, especially as Glinda the Good Witch, gives us just the right whimsy and wisdom that carries her down to greet Dorothy and away into the nether reaches above and behind the stage. Caroline Simpson, as Mrs. Gulch and the Witch of the West, sweeps across and flies over the stage with frightening delight and delivers that signature, mocking wicked witch cackle that echoes around the theater and yes, will send shivers down your spine. And Patsy Detroit effortlessly plays her Dorothy with just the innocence, wonder, and desperation as Judy Garland.
And in one of the most delightful aspects of the show, Director Branan employs a group of children of various ages to bring Munchkin Land to life. Hiding from Dorothy – “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” – when she steps from her fallen Kansas house into the Land of Oz, each child brings his or her own Munchkin characters to life that will keep you grinning from ear to ear, all the way until they tell Dorothy and the rest of us to “follow-follow-follow-follow follow the yellow brick road” to Oz.
The rest of the crew and creative team handles the twister, the poppy field, the distant vision of the Emerald City, the Witch’s castle and the giant projection of the Great and Powerful Oz with great and immersive spectacle, and a sound design that engulfs the theater and brings the audience right into the Land of Oz.
And no production of Oz would be complete without flying, from the Witch to her flying monkeys, enough to keep us spellbound and reminding us that we’re not in Kansas any more. And yes of course, there’s Toto too. Played here in the flesh by a quiet little long hair Dachshund.
But the overwhelming feeling that one takes away from this production are the reminders of the wonder, innocence and escapism that we can all use at times. Dorothy, via tornado or bump on the head or otherwise, has to leave her Kansas farm for a spell to be reminded of what’s so important to her: her friends, her family, her home. And for a couple of hours, immersed in the wonderfully familiar music, sights, sounds and dialogue that are such a part of our childhood memories, I was taken away to a place that feels like home.
It’s a holiday spectacle and escape you do not want to miss. And it’s easy: just follow the yellow brick road. With all the cynicism and turmoil in recent years, you’ll be glad you spent a couple hours away from it all, immersed in the Merry Old Land of Oz, and for just a few precious moments returned to a home and a fond memory. With the too-many losses some of us have endured, it returns us to a place and to even a lost family member we’d like to visit just one more time. Sometimes nostalgia is just what the doctor ordered. Sometimes, there really is no place like home.
Mark Fleischer is the founder and Executive Director of StoryBoard Memphis. Sometimes he writes too.
For Tickets, visit Playhouse on the Square.
Or make a donation to StoryBoard for 2 complimentary tickets.