ORLANDO – It says something about our continued national fascination with the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz” that not only have generations been raised on the adventures of Dorothy in the land of Oz, but that L. Frank Baum’s classic story continues to inspire artists today.
Director Sam Raimi’s new movie “Oz the Great and Powerful,” about a circus magician swept up from Kansas to Oz, opens on March 8. And locally, the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre is hosting a lively version of the hit Broadway musical “Wicked,” which, judging by the audience reaction, appears to have as much legs as the movie.
So what is it about Baum’s tale of Oz that keeps fascinating not only generation after generation of movie and theater fans, but also directors and writers? Why do we insist on going back to Oz so often?
In the case of “Wicked,” I suspect it’s more than just the first-rate songs by Stephen Schwartz, or the fact that the entire production evokes an enjoyable degree of nostalgia in all of us for the movie we were raised on – even if this one is pretty much minus Dorothy and Toto.
I think a reason for the enduring popularity of Oz is that while Dorothy may have insisted there’s no place like home and yearned to head back to the dusty fields of rural Kansas, most of us want to be swept up into the magical world of flying monkeys, witches, wizards — and wonder. In an economy that continues to give us high unemployment rates, rising gas prices, a credit crunch and a lingering weakness in the housing market, all painfully reminded to us every night on the evening news, we long for some escapism for a very good reason.
“Wicked” – which actually goes under the full title “The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz,” certainly doesn’t spare much when it comes to production values, from the dragon above the stage with the fiery red eyes, to the Wizard’s own elaborate kingdom. Rather than simply recreate Baum’s original story, Schwartz and writer Winnie Holzman focus on the witches in Oz, in particular the unlikely friendship between Glinda the Good Witch of the North and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West.
Starting before Dorothy’s arrival in Oz from Kansas, “Wicked” gives us a beautiful Glinda who isn’t always sweet and good, and a green-faced Elphaba who is hardly a classic villain. And their adventures in Oz have a lot less to do with Dorothy than with taking on the corrupt government in Oz, becoming rivals over the same love-interest, and developing far more complex personalities than the 1939 movie ever hinted at.
The 2003 musical, which has gone on to become the 12th longest-running Broadway show in history, doesn’t sell the audience short in the Bob Carr production. From the very opening song, “No One Mourns the Wicked,” on forward, this show aims to sweep us into the wonderous world of Oz as energetically and assuredly as the movie did.
It’s interesting to see the play transform Elphaba from the very scary witch of the movie into a mostly sympathetic character, made even more so by the superb performance by Christine Dwyer. In perhaps one of the play’s best scenes, there’s a moment when Elphaba has captured Dorothy and Toto and is demanding the return of her ruby slippers. As it turns out, Elphaba has liberated all those flying monkeys from the Wizard, and she has far more complex motives for her actions than the movie ever hinted at. It’s a lot more complicated being a witch than Dorothy ever imagined.
Along the way, the Emerald City gives us flying monkeys, the quizzical Wizard, armed palace guards, and a fine dash of humor, whimsey, suspense, adventure and romance – not a bad combination at all. And while the show features excellent performances by Jeanna De Waal as the befuddled Glinda and Paul Kreppel as the Wizard, Dwyer is without a doubt the most impressive to watch, most stunningly in her show-stopper “Defying Gravity” at the end of the first act, which pretty much brought the house down – for good reason.
“Wicked” offers a very different take on the Oz saga than the movie, and to some extent I suppose your own love for the original will dictate your reaction to a not-so-wicked green witch and a not-so-sweet Glinda. But it would be hard to deny that the Emerald City itself and its citizens continue to know how to entertain us, particularly in a production as strong as this one.
“Wicked” is visiting the Bob Carr now through March 10, one of two stops the Wicked touring company is making in Florida this year, with the other sunshine state stop being in Fort Lauderdale.
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