“People come and go so quickly here!” exclaims Kansas ex-pat Dorothy Gale after her fist whirlwind minutes in a strange new land spent talking to munchkins and witches good and bad. This line also speaks to one of the reasons for the endurance of L. Frank Baum’s American fable — it is a tale filled with incident. And to add to the proof that “The Wizard of Oz” never quite grows old, a touring stage adaptation has settled down for a short run at the Robinson Center Music Hall.
Celebrity Attractions, with this booking of the “Wizard of Oz,” is no doubt reminding theatergoers that it’s bringing “Wicked” — the wildly popular modern take on “Wizard” — to Little Rock in the fall. This “Wizard,” directed by Nigel West, is the 1980 Royal Shakespeare adaptation of the classic film musical. This version stays true to the movie but adds the infamous number “The Jitterbug” that was cut from the film. This version also comes to town touting its dazzling special effects.
On stage the net result is a tight, fast moving and more-or-less faithful recreation of the beloved film by a very capable and professional young cast. You could practically keep a scorecard on which actors were staying close to the interpretations found in the 1939 movie. Jesse Coleman, as the Cowardly Lion, channels Bert Lahr but gets plenty of laughs anyway. But Cassie Okenka’s Dorothy seems very much to have taken out all the diva and camp built around Judy Garland and the role. Instead her Dorothy is direct, innocent and sings as sweet as a bell, especially “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” All the actors were upstaged by Toto (a terrier named Dusty) who trotted on to “awws” from the crowd practically to the end. (And many in the audience were likely there to cheer on members of local Shuffles and Ballet II studios who are part of the large dance ensemble.)
Those special effects were as plentiful — though maybe not as dazzling — as promised. There’s all manner of flying and explosions (parents are hereby warned that this family tale was clearly vivid or maybe just loud enough to scare lots of little ones into crying on opening night) and static sets were supported by video projections on big scenes. The last projection, when Dorothy returns to Kansas, went on way too long and was punctuated by animated red slippers clicking over and over again.
Yet, this “The Wizard of Oz” stays true to the strengths of the story, which are bolstered by the now classic songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. It will appeal to those who know the movie backward and forwards and those who have never taken the trip down the yellow brick road.
The musical continues through Wednesday.