When a musical theatre production is based on a beloved film, there is a certain amount of risk involved. Deviate much from the original and there is a risk of alienating hard-core fans, but if there are no embellishments or additions, why even bother? When the film involved is also a sacred gay text, well, the risks are astronomical. Fortunately, The Wizard of Oz
manages this tricky balancing act and emerges as an intriguing hybrid that is so delightful and invigorating that the entire audience is transported over the rainbow without dragging or clicking their heels once.
This version of The Wizard of Oz
manages to play it both ways, being faithful to the film while also riffing on it, particularly the gay facets. The production is lavish, with huge sets and eye-popping effects, yet moves at a breakneck speed. The massive machinery required to shift scenes and locales is always in service of the story and never calls attention to itself, beyond the first moment of "wow" when a new scene is revealed. For those of us familiar with the 1939 film, some of the joking allusions to what is to come are a bit heavy-handed, but for someone coming to the material fresh, if such a person exists, it would be logical and less obvious. What is
distracting are the musical interludes interjected by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Turning The Wizard of Oz
into a sung-through musical is an ambitious endeavour. Fortunately, after the rather embarrassing attempts in the opening Kansas sections, the plan is mostly abandoned, and the glorious original score is given only some lyrical additions and stitched together to move the plot along. While the extra song for the Wicked Witch is quite amusing -- and is sold to the rafters by the dynamic Lisa Horner -- it is a dud musically and stops the opening of the second act in its tracks. Yet the new closing song, "Home," is all swelling strings and heartbreaking emotion and works wonderfully, so let's call it a draw.
It is disorienting to try to consider The Wizard of Oz
as anything other than a version of the film. I'm sure I'm not the only person who was curious as to how they would visualize the tornado (quite spectacularly and effectively, as it turns out). The person who suffers the most from this is Danielle Wade, as Dorothy. Miss Wade may be extremely talented, and her version of "Over the Rainbow" is quite moving (and if the dog playing Toto had not insisted on upstaging her, it would have been heart-rending), but there is probably no one alive who can create anything as moving as Judy Garland's wide-eyed and needy vulnerability. Once the captivating characters of Oz arrive onstage, Dorothy fades into the background and becomes a plot point rather than anyone whose desires we need to be concerned with.
And what a cast of colourful characters. Robin Evan Willis, as Glinda, has the best entrance and rimshots every line (and flings glitter) with the grace and verve of a drag queen. Despite her gorgeous soprano voice, the moments that stick are the ones that play like Miss Conception's greatest hits, turning a filmically underwritten deus ex machina
into a gloriously camp creation who steals the final number that should be Dorothy's. Miss Wade may be good at winning television contests, but she should never have attempted to share the stage with a drag queen, even one who is a bio-woman.
Jamie McKnight is always a treat onstage, and he turns the Scarecrow into a loose-limbed, dim-bulbed delight who gets more than his share of the laughs. His big number, "If I Only Had a Brain," also gets points for the best and most hilarious harmonies courtesy of Warhorse
Fab talked to Mike Jackson pre-opening
and now completely regrets settling for a phone interview. Jackson is a big man and dominates the farmhand scenes with sheer physical handsomeness. Once encased in tin, something remarkable happens and his eyes become uncannily eloquent. When longing for a heart or trying to let Dorothy go, the audience feels intense emotion rather than just the visualization of a metaphor, an acting feat, indeed, when Jackson's face is coated in thick silver makeup.
Lee MacDougall, as the Cowardly Lion, has a tougher time, simply because Bert Lahr's performance is indelible. But he also creates the most intriguing adjustment to the story by playing the lion as explicitly gay, at one point riffing on "I Am What I Am." Some of the jokes are cheap (but undeniably funny: the "perm" gag brought down the house), but for a bullied gay teen the role would be more than a metaphor, and the lion ends up as the character with the most moving journey of all, doing just what a fairy tale is supposed to do.
The Wicked Witch of the West is a showstopper, even if her so-called broom explosions are the only weak special effect in the entire show. The flying monkeys are deliciously creepy, and the kingdom of the west is the most thought-provoking sub-theme of the entire production. When Dorothy first arrives in Oz, she meets the Munchkins, who are presented emphatically in heterosexual pairs, to the extreme of having the Lullably League cradling babies. The Wicked Witch is a welcome disruptive force who happens to use a distinctly Catskills cadence and style. This makes her Cossacks, dressed as if Northbound Leather had created sexy Nazis with open-to-the-waist shirts, and their blatant sexuality -- male-female and male-male -- a fascinating contradiction that I was unable to wrap my head around and decided to just enjoy. A sexy and possibly political number in an otherwise wholesome (except for the double entendres referencing the original film and the lion's "We're friends of Dorothy" line) production is either very queer or very Bob Fosse-provocative.
But that is undoubtedly putting too much post-theatre thinking into what is, yes Tin Man, at heart an entertaining and quite moving night at the theatre. The Wizard of Oz
does the film proud and is resolutely post-modern, but it stands on its own as a spectacle with soul -- and it has more rainbows and eye-candy than a Pride parade.
The Wizard of Oz is in an open-ended run at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St. mirvish.com