Oz' tears through town like a twister of fun

By D. A. Blackburn

When it comes to NETworks Presentations' enchanting production of "The Wizard of Oz," playing Detroit's Fisher Theatre through Feb. 14, there's a familiar magic on the stage, but the devil – or wicked witch, as the case may be – is definitely in the details.
Since its first publishing, L. Frank Baum's well-worn story has taken on many shapes – from novel to stage to silver screen and back again – splintering off, evolving and growing over time. Of course, if there is to be one definitive "Oz," it's surely the 1939 MGM cinematic adaptation featuring Judy Garland, the Technicolor masterpiece that gave the world ruby slippers and the unforgettable music of Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg. So it's little surprise that this latest incarnation of the work is a remounting of an adaptation (John Kane/the Royal Shakespeare Company) of the film.

To this end, the production is a satisfying take on the "Oz" that most of us know and love, both familiar and fresh, the theatrical equivalent of comfort food. Even some very modern additions to the show's humor seem a good fit, updating without undermining the production's traditional feel.
Critically speaking, though, NETworks' production is hard to pin down.
At its best, it's an effects-heavy, multi-media feast for the eyes. At its worst, the show's production value leaves much to be desired.
But that said, "Oz" finds genuine consistency where it's important: an exceptionally talented cast, which embodies the idea of the "triple threat" of dance, music and acting.
The show opens on the Gayle family farm in Kansas, and though it's far from the black and white of movie memory, set designers Tim McQuillen-Wright and James Kronzer and lighting designer Paul Miller are quick to show us their best work – bringing the scene to life in the rich, rutty hues of a vintage photograph. Simple, but appealing set pieces give form to the space against an elegantly animated projected background by Second Home Productions. And clever stagecraft with regard to both set and projection make for an incredible transition – via twister – from Kansas to Oz.
Disappointingly, it seems that – like the twister – McQuillen-Wright and Kronzer ran out of steam when the house touched down in Munchkinland, only to regain their breath, partially, on arrival at the Emerald City. Sadly, Munchkinland, the yellow brick road and the poppy field all take on a production value more becoming of a high school stage than a national touring show. And later, work with animation seems to take on a Power Point flare.
Costuming (McQuillen-Wright and Jimm Halliday) never lets the audience down. In Kansas, the wardrobe is elegantly understated and appropriate. In Oz, it takes on a colorful, creative tone, giving even the smallest characters – and this doesn't just mean the munchkins – wholly unique individuality. While costumes for all the major roles are executed exceptionally well, ensemble performers are no less perfectly clad.
The cast, too, shares this finely balanced quality, from principals to the ensemble. Cassie Okenka's Dorothy is perfect from start to finish, performing with zeal and musical poise. Her look, too, is spot on using MGM's movie as a benchmark. Her traveling companions/farm hands are also exceptional, with Jesse Coleman's Lion/Zeke providing a particular highlight. Even Toto (a fine canine performer named Dusty) makes a good showing.
And Nigel West's smooth direction keeps everyone and everything moving forward gracefully.
The production's most noticeable departures from the movie come in the form of several excellent dance-driven scenes (choreography by Leigh Constantine, dance arrangements by Peter Howard). Most notable is the poppy field scene in which dancers portray flowers, culminating in a fine partner dance that changes the field from summer colors to snow with an amazing mid-dance costume reversal. This adaptation also modifies the Haunted Forest scene to include a unique "Jitterbug" theme, less satisfying, perhaps, for purists, but equally enjoyable with regard to dance. ("The Jitter Bug," which took five weeks to shoot, was deleted from the film after the first preview.)
This "Oz" also features local young dancers from Deborah's Stage Door of Rochester Hills, who are able to keep pace with their professional compatriots.
When all is said and done, this production retains the magic that's kept "The Wizard of Oz" a pop culture staple since Baum published it in 1900. And best of all – as evidenced by the opening night house – it's a production that crosses all generational lines, thrilling the very young and the young-at-heart alike.

'The Wizard of Oz'
Broadway in Detroit, Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Through Feb. 14. $24-$79. 313-872-1000.