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The Wizard of Oz

The touring production at the Pantages is relatively enjoyable despite a terrible reworking of the MGM Classic.

If one can look past the cruel and unusual punishment that is what producer Andrew Lloyd Webber has done to the classic fantasy film The Wizard Of Oz, this specific mounting, at L.A.'s Pantages Theatre, is not bad with a cast that makes the most of the material provided.

The plot follows the movie. Dorothy (Danielle Wade) feels unwanted and in the way at her uncle and aunt's small farm. She dreams of a special land over the rainbow where her anxieties would fade away. A tornado lifts her house and flies her to a Technicolor world of witches, bad and good, talking animals, and a magical wizard who can fulfill wishes. Dorothy discovers that even with bright colors and special friends in this Land of Oz, she desperately wants to go back home.

The film contained a splendid score by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg including "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" and the Oscar-winning "Over the Rainbow." Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have supplemented the score with six poorly constructed numbers. Juxtaposing Harburg's poetic rhymes with Rice's over-the-top melodies only spotlights the imbalance of the score. While Harburg cleverly matches "thinkin'" with "Lincoln," Rice so haphazardly links "stressful plans as…" and "move from Kansas" that the character can hardly spit them out. Harburg mastered a song's structure so nothing sounds superfluous. The Rice lyrics seem impressed with themselves, over-wordy, and bombastic. Webber's melodies are no match for Arlen's tunes. The insipid final song, "Already Home," lacks punch and sounds overwhelmingly like "You Must Love Me" from Webber's Evita. During a flying-monkey raid, instead of writing fresh music Webber merely lazily lifts Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain."

The book by Webber and Jeremy Sams is equally slipshod. The opening scene ignores all the original film's subtlety. It seems to fear that young audiences will not immediately realize that every Kansas character has a corresponding character in Oz, so instead it spells this out. Because millions of audiences have seen the 1939 film and were never lost, it seems not only like overkill but also like an insult. The final embarrassment, though, is the new twist ending that undermines the original's fragile structure.

Most of the cast, however, takes this material and finds dignity and delicacy in the original classic, salvaging the evening. Wade, who won the role on Canadian TV's reality show Over the Rainbow, is earnest as the dreamer Dorothy. It is a shame that the score provides her with only a few songs. She offers a solid "Over the Rainbow." Robin Evan Willis is effervescent as Glinda, The Good Witch, never imitating the film's Billie Burke nor Wicked's Glinda, Kristin Chenoweth, but finding a new creation. Jamie McKnight brings dopey humor to The Scarecrow.

Cedric Smith and Lee MacDougall both over-emote as the Wizard and the Lion, respectively, and should have been reeled in by the director Jeremy Sams for their characters' humor to succeed. Jacquelyn Piro Donovan is fine as the Wicked Witch, but the character's conception is misguided. Stripped of any menace, this Wicked Witch is goofier, reminiscent of Witchipoo from H.R. Pufnstuf. There is no horror from this protagonist, no sense of danger.

Sams' direction is problematic. The production lacks the epic scope found in the movie. Oz feels pedestrian. Sams awkwardly stages the Munchkinland scene, dispelling all tension from the Witch's death, and blandly revealing the fraudulent Wizard to Dorothy and her gang.

Choreographer Arlene Phillips rousingly turns the Witch's henchmen into a marching procession with clanking batons as they celebrate the Witch's death, but the Munchkinland dance uncomfortably combines hoe-down and hip-hop styles and the henchmen's erotic dance during "Red Shoes Blues."

The effects, including the Tornado storm and flying-monkey attack, are smartly produced and visually striking.

Because the film is still beloved, as evidenced by the success of the recent 3-D/IMAX relaunch in theaters, it is not surprising that Andrew Lloyd Webber saw that the yellow-brick road may yield further gold. However, if I borrowed a book from the library and drew sloppy stick figures and incomprehensible dialogue bubbles on the pages, the library would throw the book back and charge me for vandalism. Andrew Lloyd Webber should be similarly charged with a felony for how he devalued a classic.