By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Just about everything in The Wizard of Oz at the Dallas Summer Musicals at Fair Park is like it is in the great old MGM movie we know so well. Dorothy skips down the yellow brick road in a blue gingham pinafore. Glinda the Good Witch floats into Munchkinland on a pink bubble (sort of). The Winkies march to "Oh-ee-oh" and exult when the Wicked Witch melts away.
Henry IV continues at Samuell-Grand Park through July 21. All performances are free.
This production, using the 1987 stage adaptation by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company and directed here by Phil McKinley, doesn't try to reinvent the L. Frank Baum fable. It's a faithful, detail-for-detail tribute to the film, using the same dialogue, characters and tunes.
The nice surprise is that they have painted a few fresh colors onto the rainbow. There are three big fat Hekyll-Jekyll crows dancing along with the Scarecrow and Dorothy when those two first meet at the crossroads. The scary apple trees behind the Tin Man turn into a female doo-wop chorus for "If I Only Had a Heart." We also get to see the jivey "Jitterbug" song-and-dance number that was cut from the movie, used onstage here in full and expanded into a major showcase featuring all four principals and a dozen dancers decked out in fluttery, glow-in-the-dark green insect costumes. It's the high point in a very good show.
For the actors, it must be a chore to have to cleave so closely to the performances of the originators of their roles--Kate Manning as Dorothy even inserts Judy Garland's trademark breathlessness between her "Auntie Ems"--but they have been allowed to inject a little something here and there to make the parts their own.
Manning, a pretty, petite adult, makes her Dorothy Gale more of a plain little farm girl than Garland's was. This is a Dorothy who might possibly have slopped a hog or hoed a row on that bleak Kansas farm. After the twister, she seems genuinely thrilled to find herself plunked down in the merry old color-drenched land of Oz, shod in sparkly ruby slippers.
As a singer, Manning avoids pyrotechnics, thank goodness. She delivers the classic Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg songs in a clear, strong voice. And even in an echo-plagued barn the size of the Music Hall, her acting reads simple, sincere and affecting. When she finally clicks those heels together, you'd have to be a humbug not to get a lump in your throat.
As her traveling companions, Manning gets three performers who do better than just impersonate their movie counterparts. Mark Chmiel is a lithe, lovable Scarecrow with a lilting voice. Who knows how Ian Knauer manages to remain upright, swallowed as he is in his huge Tin Man costume, but he does just fine and he dances great, too. Best of all is David Titus, who offers a Cowardly Lion that starts out Bert Lahr but takes on some distinctly campy Nathan-Lane-as-Max-Bialystock characteristics the closer he gets to the Emerald City.
Titus makes a royal treat of the garrumphing "King of the Forest," but earlier his wish-song, "If I Only Had the Nerve," is a lament for every sensitive little boy who got bullied on the playground:
Yeah, it's sad, believe me, Missy, when you're born to be a sissy
Without the vim and voiv.
But I could show my prowess, be a lion not a mou-ess
If I only had the noiv.
I'm afraid there's no denyin' I'm just a Dandylion,
A fate I don't desoiv....
Oh, Lion, you're here, you're dear. We got used to it a long time ago.
With a cast of nearly 100 actors, singers and dancers (you can't believe how utterly adorable the Munchkin children are, particularly the Lollipop Kids and the Lullabye League), The Wizard of Oz is a grand-scale spectacle that hits every note and then some. So what if the wires flying the Wicked Witch and the Flying Monkeys are visible? And, OK, the twister isn't all that terrifying onstage compared to the movie's special effects (which were themselves pretty crude by today's standards). This is old-fashioned, earthbound nostalgia. Just sit back and suspend all disbelief. Before too long, you'll feel your troubles melt away like lemon drops.
Its major problem is length. Two hours is too long for a first act, particularly when one's keister is plonked on a blanket on hard ground on a hot night outdoors among the swarms of mosquitoes at Samuell-Grand Park. After intermission, there's another 50 minutes to go before young Prince Hal ascends to the throne of England, and we all can go home to air-conditioning, ice water and calamine lotion.
The night's so long because it's actually two plays up there. For this production, John Flores has condensed Shakespeare's pair of Henry plays into one long pageant of royal bickering. The script omits a lot of the war reportage and shifts the focus onto Sir John Falstaff, Hal's "boon companion" and father figure and traditionally one of Shakespeare's most reliably funny characters.
Funny, he's not so funny in this version. He's still a fat, boozy old braggart, but as portrayed by Kyle McClaran, he's unbearably pompous and more pathetic than Otis, Mayberry's town drunk. The audience is supposed to love Falstaff, so much so that they feel as betrayed as he when, at the end of Henry IV II(which arrives around 11 p.m. in this version), newly crowned King Henry V rejects him and imposes a sort of royal restraining order to keep him far away from court. This less-than-likable Falstaff is forced to carry Henry IV on his stooped shoulders, and it's too heavy a load.
As Hal, young David Goodwin is slighted by the rewrites. He evolves too quickly from drunken lout to officious bureaucrat. Lynn Mathis is a superb King Henry IV, but his role, too, is diminished in favor of more Falstaff scenes. Tina Parker makes a lively punk yobbo as Poins, a role traditionally played by a man. The rest of the diverse cast is just all right. (Last Saturday they were hampered by microphone problems.)
The production is oddly designed. The characters appear in modern dress (designed by Giva Taylor) that combines camouflage uniforms and tailored business suits. The soldiers wear berets and look like U.N. Peacekeepers. The wenches get platform disco boots and hot pants. Lord Westmoreland (Kevin Paul Hofeditz) is dressed like Sam Spade in a trench coat and fedora. Old Falstaff slops around in a tropical green shirt and carries an aluminum baseball bat for a cudgel. None of it makes much sense, and it's all too precious by half.
Russell Parkman's set design centers on a tall white staircase that glides around the stage. With its white floor and corrugated steel doors, the stage resembles the lobby of one of those impossibly trendy, unwelcoming Manhattan hotels.
The whole production feels unwelcoming, actually, and never really hooks the hoi polloi out there on the lawn with their picnic baskets.
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