A stage-musical version of The Wizard of Oz adapted from the iconic 1939 film starring Judy Garland has just hit A.C.T.'s Toni Rembe Theater, and it's a fun, lightly reimagined romp through familiar material that succeeds in many laughs.
My first thought when I saw that American Conservatory Theater would be finishing out their somewhat abbreviated 2022/23 season with The Wizard of Oz was "Who is this for, exactly?" A.C.T. in the last decade has been much more known for highbrow fare and plays that recently premiered on or off-Broadway, with occasional musicals thrown in — including a stellar revival of Sondheim's A Little Night Music in 2015, and the premiere of the Tales of the City musical in 2011. Their subscribers expect to see A Christmas Carol on the holiday schedule every year, but maybe not so much family-centric fare like The Wizard of Oz during the rest of the year.
After learning that it was being helmed by director and choreographer Sam Pinkleton — who choreographed the brilliant Soft Power at the Curran in 2018 and the premiere of the short-lived but critically acclaimed Amelie musical on Broadway and earlier at Berkeley Rep — I assumed, correctly, that we would be getting a less-than-traditional take on the Wizard, Dorothy, and the Munchkins.
The resulting production, which opened Wednesday, is indeed a very kooky and queer reimagining of L. Frank Baum's story of a tornado trip to Oz, and the journey of discovery through a fantasy land by a plucky young girl, her dog, and three affable figures in search of something they lack. But its kookiness has its limits, the humor never gets too adult, and the LEGO table in the cocktail lounge might be a clue about who's largely expected to attend.
The LGBTQ+ representation in the cast is considerable, with genderqueered casting, loads of camp humor, and half the cast members claiming they/them pronouns in the program. And with the queer community's loooong affinity for The Wizard of Oz — and as you surely know, a 1950s-era euphemism for gay was "a friend of Dorothy" — that seems only appropriate.
As Dorothy, Chanel Tilghman seems at first a meek and modest presence on stage, but she quickly blossoms into a fearless leader of her rag-tag gang of misfits — her voice, also, soars in a lovely rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
She's costumed by scenic and costume designer David Zinn as a tomboy (do we still use that word?), in pants, Batman tee, and hoodie, and the addition of proper, kitten-heeled ruby slippers then marks one of the first choices in the show where you could just as easily have seen them going with some glittery red Converse All-Stars, but they hewed to the original instead.
Zinn's sets throughout the show are a star unto themselves, taking us from black-and-white/gray Kansas to the kindergarten classroom rainbow of Munchkinland and the glowing green of Emerald City, all with humble materials and a few bare platforms. Without spoiling too much, I'll just say that Zinn's and Pinkleton's solution for recreating Munchkins without the aid of actual little people is pretty brilliant.
Other standout performances include Katrina Lauren McGraw as Aunt Em and Glinda, El Beh as Uncle Henry and the Oz Guard, and Bay Area stage vet Danny Scheie as the Scarecrow — and Scheie always knows how to chew on a laugh line to great comic effect.
As Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch, wearing white cowboy boots and a purple wig, Courtney Walsh does some admirable bicycle and balcony work, gleefully encouraging the audience's jeers.
Speaking of audience participation, everyone who arrives at this Wizard of Oz gets a yellow napkin in their program that's stamped "I'm Not a Napkin. I'm a Yellow Brick. You'll Need Me Later." And, yes, it's very obvious when it's needed.
Where this Wizard of Oz succeeds, it does so in spades, drag-i-fying a classic tale and adding a wink-wink goofiness to many familiar scenes and songs.
But I left the show feeling a little shortchanged, if only because a story like this that is so canonized, and that has been adapted and reimagined so many times over the last 80+ years, begs to be messed with as much as possible. And in the end, this is a rather faithful adaptation that changes very little of the original movie script and uses all of the songs pretty much as-is, even if the window dressing and casting make for some alternative visuals.
The funniest joke in a reimaginitive vein, maybe, comes in the use of ensemble member Travis Santel Rowland as the Witch's minion and lead flying monkey Nikko — decked in full clown attire with wings, and communicating via kazoo. Because the original Nikko didn't have any real lines to speak of, Pinkleton took liberties here, to hilarious effect — I just wish he'd taken more of them.
But, what I'm imagining, like some Cockettes fever-dream version of The Wizard of Oz that only uses the original as a jumping-off point, probably wouldn't make for the kind of crowd-pleasing, family-friendly fare that theaters need right now to get people in the door. (ACT Executive Director Jennifer Bielstein makes clear in the program that families are a big part of the intended audience, and they even "hosted a youth focus group during rehearsals, to make sure that the storytelling was landing for kids.")
It's just that when you start to have fun with a few components of a sacred cow like The Wizard of Oz, it's hard not to want to take it all the way. And when it comes to this production, it's pretty beholden to the familiar old tale in the end and has plenty of heart.
Oh, but if it only had a little more courage and a wackier brain!
'The Wizard of Oz' plays through June 25. Find tickets here.