Off to see ‘The Wizard’ on High Street

Cary Ginell reviews The Wizard of Oz at HSAC

The plot in “The Wizard of Oz” has been jokingly reduced to “two women fight to the death over a pair of shoes,” but to millions of fans around the world, “Oz” is an almost sacred subject.

The classic 1939 film is so embedded in our collective psyches that anyone from 8 to 80 can tick off its most memorable lines of dialogue: “I’ll get you, my pretty! And your little dog, too!” “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” and “Lions and tigers and bears, oh, my!”

High Street Arts Center’s highly entertaining production of the stage musical version checks all the boxes, from fine acting and singing performances to its visually stunning staging, employed with the help of the theater’s recently installed “video wall,” which enables the use of digitally designed settings.

“Oz” was a stage musical decades before the MGM motion picture ever came about. The original 1902 Broadway production featured no Wicked Witch of the West, no Toto and a score that was co-written by “Oz” author L. Frank Baum himself. But it’s the 1939 film starring Judy Garland that fans have committed to memory, and it’s because of this that anyone daring to present it in a live setting has a valued legacy to protect.

Thankfully, John Kane’s 1987 adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company preserves all of the original dialogue and songs (including rarely sung verses), but also adds enough new material to make it fun for audiences to track the differences.

High Street’s cast is led by Simone Bali who does a lovely job as Dorothy. Bali’s attention to detail in replicating Garland’s film performance is meticulously accomplished, right down to the little vocal turn she does in “Over the Rainbow” on the phrase “skies are blue.”

The trio playing her companions also pay homage to their film counterparts: Tony Cellucci providing necessary limberness for the Scarecrow, Joey Langford bringing the required sentimentality to the Tin Man, and David Hatfield impeccably replicating Bert Lahr’s Upper East Side accent as the Cowardly Lion.

Kurt Raymond and Raymond Mastrovito last performed the dual roles of, respectively, the Wicked Witch of the West/Miss Gulch and The Wizard of Oz/ Professor Marvel in 2016 for the Conejo Players and both are ideally suited for their respective parts. Raymond has made the cackling Witch a career-branded specialty, having played the part for the past three decades (this is his 21st time donning the green-tinged skin makeup and pointy hat). Mastrovito made sure to display his own carefully crafted talents as a sleight-of-hand magician into his scene as Professor Marvel.

The Kane version is notable for featuring additional doubled characters other than the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. Melia Bacon plays Aunt Em and Glinda the Good Witch of the North while Kit Runge plays Uncle Henry and the Emerald City guard; both give exemplary performances.

An adorable Shih-poo named Cookie is a little scene-stealer as Toto, although for most of the show she was replaced by a stuffed version carried around by Dorothy in a basket. The children’s chorus playing the Munchkins is terrific, although size was apparently not considered during casting (some are taller than Dorothy).

One thing people overlook about “Oz” is the clever playfulness of E. Y. Harburg’s lyrics. Harburg was known for forcing his rhymes by stretching and distorting words such as “mou-uss” to rhyme with “prowess” and “worthy erv-ya” to rhyme with “deserve ya.” His genius is especially evident in “The Jitterbug,” a restored tune discarded from the original movie that includes more outrageously Harburgian rhymes, like pairing “palpitation” with “sitchy-ation.”

Follow the yellow brick road to High Street and don’t forget your ruby slippers.

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Curci