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A CurtainUp Review

The Wizard of Oz
By Les Gutman with Gail Gutman

Introductory Note:  Most of us who enjoy the theater feel the best time to catch the theater-going bug is at a young age. CurtainUp has attempted to guide young theater-goers to the right shows with its KIDS OK"buttons in the Broadway and off-Broadway address books. Madison Square Garden's production of The Wizard of Oz is one of the few shows that particularly targets the young audience. Therefore, we thought it would be an ideal show to review from that perspective. 

To accomplish this, I enlisted the assistance of my eight-year-old niece. In addition to experience as a musical theater (and movie musical) audience member, Gail has appeared on stage in musicals like Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady. We went off to see the Wizard together. To make certain you get both Gail's view and mine, I gave Gail her say, after which I kept the last word for myself. 

I think most people would agree that the movie of The Wizard of Oz is one of the best known American movie musicals. Almost everyone, no matter their age, knows it backwards and forwards; many of us remember it as both magical and meaningful. Because of that, I tend to approach the idea of putting it on stage in the terms of  if-it-ain't-broke, why-fix-it? Now that it has been adapted to the stage, I want to understand what the audience is for this adaptation, and whether it succeeds.-- Les Gutman

From Gail: Seeing The Wizard of Oz on stage was different from seeing the movie (which I have seen a number of times). I liked both, but for me, seeing it on stage was a lot less scary. I don't like being scared, and I always have to close my eyes when The Wicked Witch gets freaky in the movie.

It was fun to see the special effects on stage. I know that's a lot harder because in the theater everything has to seem real right then.  This also makes the acting harder. In the movie they probably stopped in the middle if something wasn't just right. On stage they can's just get out the cameras and do it again. They also can't add special effects later the way they do in the movies.

I especially liked how they had Dorothy fly around during the cyclone. There was lots of other flying too -- the witches, the gigantic crows in the cornfield and the Wicked Witch's flying monkeys. The dancing steps were also terrific. One other thing I really loved in this play was how they did the yellow brick road. Sections of it lit up one at a time. When Dorothy got to the Emerald City, it turned green.

I saw a play called The Great Gilly Hopkins with my mom and dad a few weeks ago. That story was all new to me and that was special, so seeing a story on stage that I already knew as a movie was a little different. I definitely liked both versions but there were things about the stage version that were interesting because they weren't like the movie.

The  scenes sometimes went by real fast so that you don't get to see things like  Dorothy  dreaming. I still like Dorothy best of all the characters and there were a few I liked better on stage than in the movie, like the wizard..  This one was really funny. He was played by Mickey Rooney who was in movies with Judy Garland when they were both kids and very famous. The movie  Wizard never did a lot to make me pay attention to him.   I also thought Eartha Kitt who I saw and liked in a movie called Harriet the Spy) was a terrific Wicked Witch. I liked her voice a lot. She was a real wicked witch but she didn't try to be scary.

It's hard to decide which version I like better. I liked it on stage a lot, and I'm glad I went. It's not my favorite show (The Sound of Music is), but I'd still recommend it.

And now a few thoughts from her jaded uncle: I think many children remember The Wizard of Oz as an early experience with scary movies, and I agree the terror doesn't really convey the same on stage. I also feel some of the detail is lost in the way the action on stage proceeds. (There are, of course, no close-ups, and things seem to happen rather than unfold.) In the final analysis, I think the stage play holds up better when you don't compare it to the movie at all. As theatrical extravaganza, it has a lot going for it. It generally doesn't try to reinvent the story; it delivers it in the form of theatrical extravaganza.

For me, there is one significant performance in the stage version: Eartha Kitt. She brings her own interpretation to the role and performs it with a presence that overshadows not only everyone else on stage but, even more remarkably, the defining performance of Margaret Hamilton in the film. If there's a single reason for adults to see the show, Eartha is it.

Many of the scenes were especially attractive. The arrival in Munchkinland, the poppy field and the Witch's forest were beautifully realized. In fact, all of the production values (sets, costumes, sound, lights) reflect a spare-no-expense effort to deliver strong, well-produced entertainment, if not necessarily great theater.

From the moment you arrive in Madison Square Garden, you realize the approach the producers have taken to this enterprise. From the costumed vendors lining the long entranceway (appropriately covered in yellow brick carpeting) hawking every imaginable souvenir, to the popcorn and cotton candy vendors in the aisles, it's clear this is more akin to circus than theater. Certainly, that's the fairer way to evaluate it, and on that basis, it's a heck of an evening.


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