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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Wizard of Oz — National Tour — Academy of Music

1.166709The production of “The Wizard of Oz” currently crossing the U.S. looks less like a touring company than like a tourist trap.

You might expect to find this kind of slapdash version of the classic to attract an unsuspecting visitor’s dollar in New York, London, or Las Vegas, but it doesn’t compare in quality with other tours that have played the Academy of Music, Forrest, or Merriam this season.

The acting is fine once the action moves to Oz, but in the opening scenes it seems wooden and rushed. Accents, especially Chelsea Duplak’s as Auntie Em, are shrill, and everything happens quickly and without much definition. Only Dorothy’s meeting with Professor Marvel qualifies as a well-paced and well-played scene. For once, even the sound design by Mick Potter is pitched too low and requires additional amplification. It is difficult to hear Danielle Wade, as Dorothy, and a lot of dialogue gets lost. Only when Wade sings “Over the Rainbow” and a new song Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote for this production, “Nobody Understands Me,” is she intelligible above the winds from a storm and the ominous music that announces the approach of Miss Gulch.

The frenzy on stage gives you a sense of movement, but not one of danger. Even a moment that should be charming, the farmhands who become Dorothy’s companions in Oz fixing a back-up generator, plays flat and lifeless, maybe because you can hear Duplak’s unpleasant voice in the background.

Visual effects abound, but even though they approximate the images in the 1939 movie that made “The Wizard of Oz” a favorite of every generation, they seem  old-fashioned and dull. They look like graphics from the first years of computer generation, not 21st century work.

Things pick up when Dorothy lands in Oz. The set doesn’t look any more opulent, but color helps, and the appearances of Glinda, the Munchkins, and the Wicked Witch of the West liven up the proceedings. Arlene Philips’s choreography is rudimentary, but it serves well enough to get the production moving. The acting also improves once the cast is out of their farm duds in their scarecrow, tin man, and lion drag. Jamie McKnight is especially engaging as the Scarecrow. His sweet voice is an antidote to Duplak’s, and he has a shrewdly ironic way with a comic line.

As flowers appear and poppies bloom and snow falls, there’s more to watch and divert, but all looks as if it was done on a budget. Brightness doesn’t hide that nothing looks particularly new or fresh or made to dazzle. The gates of the Wizard’s palace have  no majesty or allure. Emerald City looks paltry even with the citizens greeting Dorothy and company breaking into a snappy dance to “The Merry Old Land of Oz.” The Wizard himself is a distorted face and a set of  lips. Yes, this is fine for what was available in 1939, but we are 75 years beyond that date and eons past it technologically. Something better could have been conceived and achieved.

Because you come to enjoy Wade as Dorothy, McKnight as the Scarecrow, Mike Jackson as the Tin Man, and Lee MacDougall as the Lion, the story passes amiably enough, but little effort is made to take the characterizations beyond the cartoon level or to make Dorothy’s plight truly harrowing or scary. Even in the 1939 movie, you worry about Judy Garland. You worry about her the 100th time you see the movie the same way you worried about her when you were age five. Jeremy Sams’s production doesn’t take the time or trouble to create danger or tension beyond what the script by Sams and Lloyd Webber describes. All remains mediocre and by the numbers throughout.

Musical numbers often save the day. McKnight, Jackson, and MacDougall all ace their “If I Only Had a….” moments, and Wade sings in a clear, plaintive voice that puts some emotion behind her words.

Jacquelyn Piro Donovan is an entertaining Wicked Witch. She is given a new Lloyd Webber number, “Red Shoes Blues,” that she does with a belter’s bravura. Though Donovan threatens and easily dominates any scene in which she appears, she never manages to intimidate anyone before her. Again, Sams did not endow his production with tension or intensity. He expected the “Wizard of Oz” title on the marquee to do the job of bringing people to the theater, and he didn’t bother to make his show dramatic. Familiarity with the movie would be enough, I guess.

Sams’s cast deserves better. They look hollow because he has left them with only the most superficial direction in terms of acting and pacing. The show has no rhythm or theatrical high points. It just goes along apace, begging acceptance from an audience that loves the Arlen-Harburg tunes and enjoys seeing a favorite story acted out in person.

The Scarecrow may seek a brain, but McKnight is the best at giving Sams’s inert production some heart. His portrayal is endearing, and he seems to have given thought to his line delivery, so he nails more jokes than his castmates.

The way Donovan comes and goes is almost a reminder the Witch is part of the play. She needs to be more of a constant presence. Where are the scenes of the Witch in her lair watching Dorothy through a crystal ball? At best, Sams gives Donovan a telescope. Not the same thing. Visually or dramatically.

I can go on about this productions flaws and economies. I can also offer sympathy to Wade for having a hold an actual or stuffed version of Toto for almost the entire first act. That limits the actress’s movements and must be tiring to her arms and shoulders. Having a dog in one’s arms for an hour looks odd. There had to be a better idea, even if Dorothy put Toto in a basket woven from the Scarerow’s excess straw.

Sams’s production doesn’t bore. It just never takes off. It lacks energy and focus. Wade, McKnight, and company entertain, but they never have the chance to wow the audience in any sustained or sustaining fashion. Even the dance ensemble has few opportunities to rouse the house. Donovan comes closest to doing that in a scene she plays from the balcony, a scene that makes her menace seem more immediate and gives Donovan some good comic moments as her Witch stares down a kid or three.

The fun Wade, McKnight, Jackson, MacDougall, Donovan, and Larry Herbert as the Wizard seem to have performing doesn’t translate to fun for the audience. They more than go through motions, but everything is fast for speed’s sake, and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting isn’t sharp enough to illuminate all that happens, so the show seems a bit distant.

In addition to the actors mentioned, Robin Evan Willis does a nice job as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Her entrances are often more surprising and more delightful than Donovan’s, and Willis finds the right touch to make Glinda arch but not cloying.

“The Wizard of Oz” runs through Sunday, June 8 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, and 1 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $105.50 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-893-1999 or by going online to www.kimmelcenter.org/broadway.

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