Watching the newly opened The Wizard of Oz at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts is a slightly strange if mostly satisfying experience.
Unless you’ve traveled to London or Toronto to see this new take on L. Frank Baum’s familiar tale, you’ll be experiencing composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Jeremy Sams’ version of the story for the first time. But boy, will you have a feeling of déjà vu as you watch Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion do their thing along the Yellow Brick Road.
Created in London in 2011, this Wizard of Oz incorporates plenty of classic lines and lots of the Harold Arlen-E.Y. “Yip” Harburg songs from the beloved 1939 MGM film.
The Oscar-winning Over the Rainbow, forever identified with star Judy Garland, is the second song in the show, and it gets a reprise in the second act. When the Wicked Witch of the West calls Dorothy “my pretty” and later wails, “I’m melting!,” hundreds of audience members could say the lines right along with her. Déjà vu.
What makes this Wizard of Oz worth experiencing (far more than the Oz that visited Miami’s Arsht Center in 2008) are the talents of its performers, the chance to hear the movie’s classic songs sung live, and the work of the show’s design team, particularly the wizardly achievements of video-projection designer Jon Driscoll (re-created for the tour by Daniel Brodie).
The version of Auntie Em and Uncle Henry’s Kansas farm created by Driscoll-Brodie, set and costume designer Robert Jones, and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone is, instead of the movie’s early black-and-white scenes, a sepia-toned place evocative of old photographs.
The magic begins when the fearsome twister hits, and Dorothy cowers in the farmhouse as it gets lifted up, propelled through what seems to be a wormhole in space, then plunked down in Oz right on top of the unlucky Wicked Witch of the East. Start to finish, the special effects in this Wizard of Oz really are special and dramatically engaging.
While deeply influenced by the movie, the Lloyd Webber-Sams musical isn’t a slavish copy.
The Munchkins, for instance, are played by ensemble members who take on numerous roles, not by little people, as in the film. And it’s obvious that the witch-centric Wicked gave this show’s witches a higher, flashier profile. Glinda the Good Witch is dressed in sparkly, futuristic blue, to match her hair. The green Wicked Witch of the West is a nasty piece of work, but she also perceives herself as sexy, at least in the new Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice song Red Shoes Blues. (None of the new songs, it should be noted, rises to the level of the Arlen-Harburg numbers.)
Danielle Wade, a Canadian theater student when she won the role of Dorothy in a reality TV competition, possesses a beautiful voice and does Over the Rainbow proud. She has a likeable stage presence and is a good dancer, but her soft-spoken, sometimes rushed line readings are more suited to film or television than to the stylistic demands of musical theater.
Jacquelyn Piro Donovan is more amusing than frightening as the Wicked Witch of the West, perhaps because the character isn’t consistent; she’s going for scary one moment, trying for sexy the next. As her opposite number Glinda, Robin Evan Willis is alluring and helpful. You have to wonder, though, why Glinda didn’t just get down to business and tell Dorothy to click the heels of the ruby slippers together while saying “there’s no place like home” instead of sending her on that wild goose chase to Oz — short as that would have made the show.
Jamie McKnight as the Scarecrow, Mike Jackson as the Tin Man and Lee MacDougall as the Lion all starred opposite Wade in the Toronto cast, which was the basis of this touring company, and all three are terrific. Jay Brazeau is new to the roles of Professor Marvel and the Wizard, and he still seems to be finding his way.
But as for a wee dog named Nigel, a canine who snagged the pivotal role of Toto? Sure, he may eat his weight in doggie treats during the show, but his acting is rock-solid.