Like the directions to Oz that the Scarecrow offers Dorothy during their first encounter in the cornfield, there are two ways to go when approaching a stage production of “The Wizard of Oz.”
One is to realize that, ever since MGM’s iconic 1939 reworking of L. Frank Baum’s novel with Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s Oscar-winning score, the yellow brick road traverses sacred ground. In the lavish, highly reverent adaptation created by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the dialogue and structure of the classic film is recreated nearly verbatim. As performed on national tour, which came through Cleveland in 2015, this production reminds us that there’s no place like homage.
But given Pierre-Jacques Brault’s proclivity for playfulness on a limited budget, his Mercury Theatre Company has opted to go in a decisively different direction – one that celebrates the work but, under his direction, imbues the RSC script with the company’s signature impishness and resourceful reinvention.
Whereas the national tour replicated all the cinematic special effects in the film with elaborate, animated projections on a massive transparent scrim, Mercury designers Nicholas Thornburg (scenic), Michael Jarett (lighting) and DW (costuming) keep things simple, colorful and charmingly low-tech. A piece of black fabric blown upward by a small fan serves as the tornado, shadow puppets represent the legion of flying monkeys, and the magical comings and goings of Glinda, the Good Witch, are represented by fistfuls of luminescent glitter tossed skyward.
While the glitter sticks to everything – the costumes of the performers, the faces of the on-stage band consisting of Eddie Carney on keyboard and Nicholas Urbanic on drums, and the hair of audience members sitting in the first three rows – not every innovation does.
An a cappella rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” performed beautifully by Kaitlyn Gabric as Dorothy with wonderful backup harmony by the ensemble (including Joey Cook, Chad Harris, Hannah Hensler, Kris Lyons, Evan Martin and Juliana Tate), is one of the show’s highlights. But the score is otherwise underserved by only keyboard, drums and a few fearless cast members attempting assorted wind instruments during production numbers.
In an effort to mix things up a bit, Brault chose to cast six featured actors as the Scarecrow, the Tinman, the Lion, Glinda, the Wicked Witch and the Emerald City Gatekeeper. Who plays what on a given night is dictated by audience ballots texted just prior to each performance.
If everyone was as artistically ambidextrous as Brian Marshall – who, on the evening of my attendance, depicted the Wicked Witch as a stone-cold diva armed with an abundance of clever adlibs – the tag-team casting would work beautifully. But the otherwise talented Kelvette Beacham, Jonathan Bova, David Marquette, Jennifer Myor and Lynette Turner bring little that is mischievous or particularly playful to their assigned roles, which is also true of Hester Lewellen as the Wizard of Oz.
Interchanging roles each night also resulted in some delays in line delivery and the occasional scrambling for staging and dance steps on this night.
The longevity of “The Wizard of Oz” proves that the story is as evergreen as the Emerald City itself and worth retelling. But having fun with the storytelling comes with some risks along with the ample rewards.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2019 Ohio Society of Professional Journalists best critic.