In many ways, one cannot envy the cast of the national tour of The Wizard of Oz, now in the midst of a 10-day run at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden, for having to compete with the memories of their MGM film counterparts. But the talented troupe assembled does well enough — and in some cases even better — in lending more-than-sufficient life to this enjoyable, family-friendly adaptation, smartly directed by Nigel West.
However, in what strikes me as an odd choice for a show geared to children, adaptor John Kane has created a slightly book-heavy version of the beloved tale, and even added in some of the Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg music that was cut for the film — notably a dance sequence known as “The Jitterbug” — giving the show an unneccesarily long 2 1/2-hour running time (counting a generous intermission).
Less would have definitely been more effective at the show’s slightly sloggy beginning, during which the audience is as anxious as Dorothy (Cassie Okenka) to get away from dreary old Kansas and begin the adventures in the land of Oz. (The tornado sequence is impressively done through projections, which often augment Tim McQuillen’s otherwise decent set.)
Indeed, once Dorothy is paired with her new pals, the Scarecrow (the physically impressive Noah Aberlin), the Tin Man (a soulful Chris Kind), and the Cowardly Lion (the delicious Jason Simon, who seems to be channeling both Bert Lahr and Nathan Lane), the proceedings definitely liven up. Wisely, their encounters with the Wicked Witch (the understatedly sardonic Pat Sidley) have just enough bite to be convincing, but are far less frightening than in the film. (The fact that there’s only a brief appearance by the flying monkeys was a particularly good choice.)
In smaller yet pivotal roles, Robert John Biedermann, doubling as kindly Professor Marvel and the Wizard of Oz, and Caitlin Maloney, playing both dour Auntie Em and a beatific Glinda, also provide particularly nice support; and the audience loved every appearance by Snickers as Dorothy’s devoted dog, Toto. The large singing and dancing chorus handle their multiple assignments with aplomb, especially executing Leigh Constantine’s occasionally inventive choreography.
Naturally, though, much of the show’s success rests on Okenka’s shoulders. While her rendition of “Over the Rainbow” is rather undistinguished, she is as plucky and determined as one could wish for. Even a hard-hearted grown-up is likely to surrender to her charms, as well as the many charms of this production.