The Wizard of Oz at Chicago Theatre Can’t Quite Catch Movie Magic

Four Friends in Oz. Photo by Denise S. Trupe.

Based on the 1939 MGM Classic of the same name, The Wizard of Oz attempts to adapt the tale of one Kansas kid’s quest to find the titular mage for the stage. And though the iconography and score remain largely intact, both purists and casual fans will likely find fault in the execution of this touring production.

The story here is common knowledge: Dorothy (Kalie Kaimann), a plucky and industrious farm girl, is swept up from her dustbowl homestead via tornado and dropped into the technicolor world of Oz. She accidentally kills a witch, meets two more, and then is off to the Emerald City. Along the way she picks up a trio of companions and, well, you know the rest. This would seem a perfect piece to illuminate the grand Chicago Theatre stage, but the production is lacking the spectacle and showmanship to truly live up to, or even compare with, its namesake.

The problems happen early and often, with a prefab set clashing against garish projections and animations meant to liven the thinly populated worlds (Munchkinland and the Emerald City are particularly anemic, with the small ensemble showing up so often you begin to recognize faces). The performances range from gratingly arch to dull impressions, none of them supported by the bland adaptation that often fills in shorter scenes with uninspired patter and tone-deaf punchlines. One glaring example is the addition of a gruesome backstory for the Tinman, which casts him as a forlorn lover whom, cursed by the Wicked Witch, is doomed to hack off his own limbs by an enchanted axe, thus needing to be reconstructed as man made of tin. It’s a head-scratcher. When Dorothy’s friends at long last receive a brain, a heart, and some courage, it occurred to me that those were the very things missing in this piece from the beginning.

The evening isn’t a total bust, though, with the charm and timelessness of the original material poking through occasionally, offering glimpses of what this production could have been. Harold Arlen’s brilliant score remains a treat; my ears were called to joyous attention as the overture announced the arrival of showtime, and the ever-clever wordplay present in numbers such as “Munchkinland” and “Merry Old Land of Oz” translates nicely to over-enunciated musical theater voices. And hats off to Victor Legarreta, who is pitch perfect as the Lion; his introduction is the bright spot in a glacial first act, and the actor’s rendition of “King of the Forest” lovingly translates the film with grace and precision.

The legacy of The Wizard of Oz, as is the case with all fairy tales, relies on its ability to pass through the ages with allegorical significance. Dorothy is expelled from her home not merely due to a random act of weather, but because she makes the ultimate adolescent mistake: she shows no gratitude for the things she has in spades. In Oz she is received unwittingly as a hero; the Munchkins are willing to transfer their allegiance blindly to this girl from a star simply because she usurped their totalitarian aggressor. The Ozians of Emerald City have committed the same offense. This is a metropolis in decline, a cosmopolitan society of decadence and ignorance; they are a green-tinted 1920s America, largely ignoring the horrors beyond their borders, and they’ve turned to the first buffoon to fall from the sky.

The Wizard requires absolute faith in exchange for his protection; when our heroes threaten to expose his ordinariness, he sends them on an impossible quest in order to silence them. It’s political assassination by way of misdirection, and it is only when Dorothy and company complete their adventure that Oz realizes the true consequences of his fictions. Thus the Land of Oz is transformed from dictatorship to oligarchy, with the merits of wisdom, compassion, and bravery leading the charge to anchor a wayward society. And so, after clicking her heels, Dorothy learns not only the virtue of family, but the value of agency and a solid moral compass. She learns that the American Spirit can transform any place, even the desolate wasteland she calls home, into a Paradise on Earth. The creative team would be wise to learn from this fable before attempting to stage Wizard again.

The Wizard of Oz is playing at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St., through Sunday, May 20. Tickets are $39-$129.

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Matthew Nerber

Matthew Nerber is a performer and theater artist in Chicago, and a former literary contributor with the Generation, the University at Buffalo’s longest running alternative newspaper. When not seeing or making theater, Matthew can be found at the Music Box or expanding his classic rock vinyl collection. He is a 2019 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.