‘The Wizard of Oz’ dazzles the Buell Theater

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Adams Visual Communications

Certain locations can capture the imagination. Some wish to travel to a galaxy far, far away, others yearn to pass through the barricade of Platform 9 3/4, and then there are days we all wish to go where troubles melt like lemon drops high above the chimney tops.

In 1900 L. Frank Baum introduced the world to the wonderful world of Oz with his classic children’s novel and in 1939 film version Judy Garland took us over the rainbow. More than a century later, Oz remains ripe for exploration. It’s a timeless story of hope, friendship and family that perfectly straddles the line between dreamland and acid trip.
So it’s no surprise that a stage musical version of The Wizard of Oz was destined for glory. Add in two musical theater heavyweights, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and you’ve got yourself a delightful night of theater. The musical opened on the West End in 2011 and is now on its North American tour, stopping at the Buell Theater through Feb. 13.

Most reincarnations of The Wizard of Oz have been applauded renditions — take The Wiz, Wicked, Oz the Great and Powerful and even the Muppets version had its moments. Every adaptation of the classic allows for some wiggle room to give each version personality. And this stage version of The Wizard of Oz had its own flair. Adhering to the story line, there were surprises that delighted the audiences, be it not-so-subtle foreshadowing, sound effects, staging choices or modern twists, (e.g., the Lollipop Guild in letterman jackets).

The well-known subject matter allowed room for the other elements of the stage production to shine. The set acted as a tool to tell the story rather than simply a backdrop. Each set created an enveloping mood in every scene, from the sepia-toned Kansas to the technicolor munchkin land to the Wicked Witch’s evil lair.

Technology in theater should be used warily, but video screens were a nice addition in this show. The point of theater is to navigate the obstacles to showing a variety of scenes in a small space. In most scenes, video added nice background elements and enhanced the production. It was only when it was relied on for plot points and transitions that it felt lazy. Figuring out how to stage a twister in an innovative way would have been better than using a video projection that left the audience dizzy.

The costumes were truly a highlight. Each character’s clothes were intricately designed, making them pop in such a rich show. (Color and detail and glitter, oh my!) No costume was overlooked — the chorus garb stunned and even the pre-Oz costumes were stitched with clever accents. It’s notable that the Cowardly Lion did look like an extra from Cats, but that isn’t surprising considering Andrew Lloyd Webber’s involvement.
Glinda and the Wicked Witch tied for best dressed of the night. Glinda’s sparkly, twirly gown was mesmerizing each time she was on stage and the Wicked Witch of the West’s black feather frock was equal parts evil and delectable.

Not only did their costumes stand out, but the performances given by both the witches were wonderful to watch. As the Wicked Witch of the West, Shani Hadjian brought to life one of the most notorious baddies in pop culture, and she seemed to being having fun while doing it. In a production sprinkled with unremarkable-but-palatable original songs, the Wicked Witch sang the only one that stood out. In “Red Shoe Blues” she criticizes dimwitted Dorothy while beating up a doll in the girl’s likeness.

The best performance of the night was from Rachel Womble who played Glinda. While the munchkins sang their welcomes to Dorothy, Womble was hilariously in the background enjoying every minute like everyone’s favorite aunt who is ready to party and always has a little too much to drink.

Unsurprisingly, Dorothy and her companions also gave excellent performances. And the production was backed by a great chorus who shined in each scene, whether as Munchkins, Ozians or Winkies.

The biggest cheer of the night went to Toto, played by a dog named Nigel. Always meeting his cues, he supplied myriad “aww” moments. He also served for a good chuckle in each scene, looking slightly confused, but chill, as to why he was being held by a guy in a lion costume or being tormented by a green-faced lady.

The Wizard of Oz on stage is a delightful addition to the beloved franchise. It has its own pizzazz but underneath the surface is just another adaptation, which isn’t a bad thing. To put it into Oz jargon: it’s not necessarily a horse of a different color. But it is a damn fine horse.

On the Bill: The Wizard of Oz. Denver Performing Arts Complex, 1345 Champa St., Denver, 720-865-4239, Through Feb. 13.