'Oz' best when it steps out of movie's shadow

Anne Herman
Photo by Joan Marcus via Anchorage Concert Association

A friend and I went "Off to See the Wizard" Tuesday night. We followed "The Yellow Brick Road," met flying monkeys, Jitterbugs, some "Munchkins" and a couple of witches. We ended up in the fabled Emerald City of Oz. Well, almost anyway.

"The Wizard of Oz" blew into town Tuesday night at the Atwood Concert Hall, a musical theater rendition of one of America's best-loved movies. The 1939 film has become an icon in American entertainment, the characters and songs well-known to anyone over the age of 10. Putting this musical treasure on stage was a bit of a suicide mission; how would any imitation measure up to the original? And the show Tuesday night was just that, a near copy of the Judy Garland film.

The cast did their best to reproduce the movie in all its magic and innocence. Unfortunately the show was a shadow of the movie, and at times one-dimensional replica that hinted at the wonders in the film.

The production had its special moments. And if you put aside memories of Judy Garland and her Oz friends, some of the magic was there. This Oz succeeded best when the actors put their own spin on the well-known characters. Kristen Stewart played Glinda, the Good Witch, as a bit of a ditsy blond. Her loopy singing and verbal asides helped the audience laugh at her while she laughed at all the craziness around her. How else could she handle giggling Munchkins (a gaggle that included 12 local young performers), dancing poppies and the Wicked Witch of the West in all her melodramatic splendor?

Pat Sibley's Wicked Witch of the West walked (or rode her broom over) the thin line between evil and parody. Her cackle alone won over the audience, if not the "good guys" in the show. And her famous exit - "I'm Melting" - was perfect and had the audience cheering her as she sunk into the floor in a cloud of hot steam.

Jesse Coleman played the Cowardly Lion with the right mix of gentle humor and sentimentality. You wanted to smack him sometimes for his silly fears, but he was also the one you wanted when you had to face the bad guys, whether they were flying monkeys, dancing jitterbugs or the "Great and Powerful Oz," a wizard more humbug than mighty magician.

Cassie Okenka, as Dorothy, had the hardest job of the cast because her characterization was going up against that of the legendary Judy Garland. Okenka had a high, bright voice that would have been lovely, if not for the comparison with Garland's.

Her acting was also a bit flat and one felt that at the end of all these adventures, Dorothy hadn't really learned anything about herself.

The same was true for the other main characters; despite their cuteness, not one had grown from all the challenges that they faced and conquered. The production strayed from the film in several places, and most of these additions were well done. Those apple-throwing trees were three sexy women in black who showed a lot of leg along with a good aim.

Dancing poppies waltzed to Fred Astaire-like music and the Technicolor-ed jitterbugs (which were not in the movie) even caught up the audience in their fast-paced action.

The music, of course, was wonderful and all the actors had good enough voices to make the audience remember the songs with fondness. The sets were reminiscent of Art Deco angles and blasted your eyes with outlandish colors and stylized costumes that suited the fantasy of Oz.

And yet, despite all the good stuff that was there, the show was a disappointment. "The Wizard of Oz" film stands on a pedestal, alone, timeless and untouchable. This theater production needed to make its own statements and find its own voice in that magical land "Over The Rainbow."

Anne Herman holds a master's degree in dance and has been a consultant for the National Endowment for the Arts

Daily News correspondent