The Wizard of Oz
A Fanciful Stage Adaptation of an American Movie Classic
By: Victor Cordell - Jun 09, 2023
“Somewhere over the rainbow.” “I’ve a feeling that we’re not in Kansas anymore.” “Follow the yellow brick road.” “We’re off to see the wizard.” The glorious 1939 movie version of L. Frank Baum’s beloved “The Wizard of Oz” has become an American touchstone and introduced a bevy of memes and tropes that define our narrative. Indeed, while it is easy to sit back and enjoy it as an entertaining pastime, in its richness, it is also a fable of the American spirit. Dorothy, despite being young and female, represents the prototypical hero on an odyssey, a quest to find her way home after defeating the odds, aided by trusty sidekicks she has met along the way. Together, using brains and hearts and courage, they conquer fears and earn their way to becoming what they had aspired to be.
When people are conditioned to the expansive vision of a story that only a movie can provide, it begs the question how that grand scope can satisfactorily be reduced to the stage. A.C.T. certainly has the answer with a brilliantly campy rendering of this classic. It’s frothy. It’s sassy. It sizzles, keeping the audience locked in and laughing from start to finish, with a cast that hits all its marks and a production that never stops delivering everchanging visual pop art.
The production encourages audience interaction like booing and waving a sea of yellow napkins that are given to the audience to represent the yellow brick road (I could have used my yellow socks instead but chose not to). And cast members often break the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience. In one instance, the attendees were asked to raise a hand if they had seen “The Wizard of Oz” and then if they hadn’t. Only one first timer was observed in the orchestra seats, so it is safe to assume that the reader already knows the story and that spoiler concerns don’t apply.
The play follows the movie closely and passes through the familiar places. Dorothy is portrayed by a spritely Chanel Tilghman who is remorseful for the trouble she has caused Aunt Em. Dorothy wends her way through Kansas, Munchkin Land, the Yellow Brick Road, the Poppy Fields, and of course, Emerald City. Set changes are endless, with a cornucopia of eye-popping props. Fanciful structures, brightly-colored signs (except for Kansas, whose name appears on a large panel of shabby cardboard box pieces!), and lights. Of course, in Emerald City, the stage turns the expected color with green tinsel curtains and mirrors. And let's not forget that "The Wizard of Oz" is a musical. Starting with Tilghman's heartfelt "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," accompanied by a trio of plucked string instruments, we get delightful renditions of songs we all know and love.
Meanwhile, although the story is designed for children, Dorothy is somewhat the cause of two deaths; off color humor abounds; and the drowsiness from the poppies could be interpreted as self-inflicted drugging. That said, German language fairy tales can be worse. While the action generally moves along briskly, unnecessary stuffing, like the jitterbug scene, extend the run time which does get too close to three hours. Instances of more organic song and dance add charm.
The cast is full of Bay Area favorites, and they do a remarkable job. The witches both stand out. Good Witch Glinda is Katrina Lauren McGraw of the big voice and big laugh and big personality, who delights, bedecked in pink, from her great frilly dress to her bouffy hair. Her nemesis is the Wicked Witch of the West played in dastardly fashion by a sneering and threatening Courtney Walsh, who is clad in all white, including cowboy boots, despite the conflicting color symbolism.
Dorothy is accompanied on her voyage by the traditional Tin Man, Lion, and in the largest role of the three, Scarecrow. Danny Scheie, one of the area’s premier comedians, is Scarecrow, and he makes the most of his sardonic counterpunch humor. All the other performers are great as well, and preferences for one or another would be subjective. I particularly like the multitalented El Beh, who has no major name role but a great deal of stage time. She excels at playing cello, acting the stoic Uncle Henry, and especially at being the frantic and flamboyant Oz guard who hinders and helps the travelers to reach the Wizard.
The design team led by Director Sam Pinkleton is really remarkable. David Zinn deserves at least double pay. Not only did he create the scenic design, with its vast number of moving parts requiring a massive management effort, but he designed the equally vast number of highly varied and clever costumes as well. Quite a contribution. Other elements also contribute to the overall effect, especially Stacey Derosier’s lighting. In all, this is a fun and nostalgic evening - a highly entertaining and deserving effort.
“The Wizard of Oz,” from the book by L. Frank Baum, adapted by John Kane, with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg is produced by American Conservatory Theater and plays at Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA through June 25, 2023.