The new production of “The Wizard of Oz,” on the main stage at the Alliance Theatre through March 11, uses an inventive design for a straightforward staging of the classic movie. The overall concept of the show is “American folk art,” which is a surprisingly natural fit. The vibrancy, resourcefulness and color of folk art are a great match for bringing both Kansas and Oz to the stage.
Surprisingly, the limitations of a stage version aren’t felt at all during the special effects. Big effects such as the tornado get a round of applause and some laughs for their wonderful homespun ingenuity. The twister is simulated with a huge billowing piece of fabric behind a scrim that lifts a miniature house. The Tin Man is an assembled sculpture of recycled materials, Toto the dog is a puppet made of empty thread spools, and Kansas itself is a literal patchwork quilt of farm fields.
The characters, songs and dialogue will be familiar to both adults and children, because the play clings pretty closely, if not exactly, to the film. Even the same incidental music is used. The play’s creators wisely opt for speed: characters, sets and situations are brought on and off quickly. We recognize them, a few inventive visual twists are added, and then the next thing is brought on. The whole show finishes in one clean, satisfying act.
A journey is harder to convey on stage than on film. There are times when the characters sing “We’re off to see the wizard” or “Follow the yellow brick road” and then don’t seem to go anywhere. And so it’s fortunate that the simple and clever sets change quickly. Emerald City is especially impressive, with skyscrapers made of draped green fabric and panes of stained glass.
The limitations of the stage are felt most during the crowd scenes. Emerald City, Munchkin City and the witch’s castle seem oddly empty. There’s one soldier in the witch’s guard, one flying monkey, one resident of Oz, and the munchkins are puppets or carved faces in the set. But the inventiveness of the production goes a long way in ameliorating this problem — linked handmade puppets dance as the lollipop league, shadow puppets create a crowd of flying monkeys in the sky, and stilts make the gatekeeper of Oz tower above the other characters.
The action is so familiar and fast that the goings-on can occasionally seem oddly mechanical, especially in the opening scenes of Kansas. But the actors approach their parts with a lot of energy, and things improve as we journey through Oz. Oddly, Brandon O’Dell doesn’t make much of an impression as Professor Marvel; then he reappears as a surprisingly touching, funny and peculiar wizard. Je Nie Fleming is an appropriately terrifying Wicked Witch, but she also brings a touch of humor to the role. With wit and old-fashioned stage bravado, Brad Raymond transforms the Cowardly Lion’s “King of the Forest” number. I always thought it was a drag in the movie, but it becomes a funny highlight here.
“Over the Rainbow” is not an easy song to tackle, because Judy Garland sang it so definitively in the film, and modern singers often have a hard time connecting to its sentiment in a genuine way. But Sharisa Whatley as Dorothy does a nice job of bringing out the song’s old-fashioned emotion with just the faintest hint of contemporary groove. The live singing is great, but the recorded music is a bummer; folk musicians on stage or in the pit would have been a great touch.
In the end, the Alliance finds a winning combination: familiar action, iconic characters and great songs are matched with a new, colorful look. The Alliance’s “Wizard of Oz” will delight all of Atlanta’s little munchkins and their parents, too.