Seattle Children’s Theatre certainly had a challenge on its hands, at least from this longtime Dorothy fanatic’s perspective, when it chose to adapt the well-known and pretty-much-perfect classic film story of The Wizard of Oz to its stage.
(Of course, I’ll give a nod here to L. Frank Baum. But the 1939 film, with its timeless songs, gorgeously colorful — if a bit quaint for today’s digital standard — sets and the dreamy, pigtailed Judy Garland is what’s seared into the hearts and minds of so many of us grown children.)
"How will they do it?" I wondered as we filed into our seats on opening night. I anticipated that Seattle Children's Theatre (SCT) would deal with some of the largess of the film story — tornado, flying monkeys, a whimsical land filled with a thick cast of jolly, twirling, singing munchkins — the way I’ve seen it handle other tricky, special-effects-demanding story elements before: By deliberately distilling them down to simplistic, and effective, solutions — slow-motion pantomime, clever lighting and puppetry.
And? While there is some puppetry here — wait until you see the cutest dog puppet ever — and simple solutions (for example, the fire-balling of Scarecrow is almost a non-event), overall SCT went “big” with Oz.
Big cast. Big group musical numbers. Big set changes. A “real” tornado spun with SCT’s digital screen techniques, which seem to be growing in popularity and make for a rich mix of theatrical texture.
Choreographer Marianne Roberts has said that she wanted to both honor the memories people have of the film but also add something fresh and different to this new production. When looking for that certain hop-step that Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion do as they set off to see the Wizard, you’ll notice something a little different — still catchy, but not the classic most kids of a certain generation can remember trying to replicate.
Also, don’t look too hard for the yellow brick road — it’s in the SCT version but doesn’t really factor as a character the way it does in the original story. In this sense, SCT is bold and fresh in its willingness to keep much of the original story but evolve into its own retelling as well.
There are clever reimaginings of scenes: The grouchy apple trees are a fun surprise, and the Wicked Witch’s army of flying monkeys is way more accessible than those in the film (smart move, SCT, as kiddos understandably love flying monkeys).
SCT also deals innovatively with the challenge of dramatic scene and set changes in the story, which takes Dorothy from a plain (though not so gray, here) Kansas farm to the inside of a storm, to a Technicolor (remember that word?) Munchkinland, to a dark and gothic witch castle and then to the sparkling, larger-than-life Emerald City.
The set whizzes at SCT played with scale, technology, and materials to realize all these various worlds and some mini-worlds in between with visually pleasing results. The costumes, especially of the big-for-SCT Munchkinland/Emerald City cast, are dazzling (though truthfully, I missed Dorothy’s blue-and-white checked dress). And the live instruments carrying along the score help to create an entrancing and pleasantly tense mood for the audience.
Strong singing is critical in order to pull off a show like this, and SCT has done very well, casting good voices (I haven’t always felt so in the past). Though not fair of course to compare to Garland, Kasey Nusbickel has a lovely voice and tenderly affects the audience with her version of "Over the Rainbow," tapping into the universal human hope that something wonderful lies ahead. My 7-year-old was bug-eye rapt during the number, as during most other parts of the show. Todd Jefferson Moore also pops as Zeke/Cowardly Lion (both Nusbickel and Moore return from SCT's 2008 staging of Oz).
Scare check: SCT tones down the fright level of many of the film’s scenes, and the show feels appropriate for most 5-year-olds and above. If you have a particularly timid or easily scared young one, I would consider waiting. My 5-year-old gripped my arm during some of the “scariest” scenes: The witch — her Kansas persona and her Oz one — is still pretty witchy here; the tornado, while fantastically techno-cool, might be worrisome to a few little ones; and the Wizard is somewhat intimidating until a puppet dog reveals his true identity.
Parents can use the story of Dorothy and her friends to introduce conversations about what’s real and what’s imaginary; about the importance of friendship and loyalty, about how to deal with bullies; and about where courage, love, intelligence and home can really be found (on the inside, of course).
Overall, my family and I were really impressed by SCT’s vision realized here. They’ve created a “big” little show, a perfect introduction or variation on the Oz book and film classic for most kids 5 and up that will please parents too, even nostalgic ones.
One final small request, though, from this purist: Could we have some sparklier red slippers, please?
If you go . . .
When: SCT's The Wizard of Oz plays Wednesday-Sunday, through Jan. 6, 2013.
Tickets: $29-$36. Buy online at sct.org