North Shore Music Theater Sends ‘Oz’ Over the Rainbow (4.5 stars)

“The Wizard Of Oz” adapted by Frank Gabrielson from the 1939 MGM film screenplay based on the novel by L. Frank Baum. Music by Harold Arlen. Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg. Directed and choreographed by Joel Ferrell. Musical Direction by William Stanley. Scenic Design by Jeff Modereger; Costume Coordinator: Paula Peasley-Ninestein. Presented by North Shore Music Theatre, located at 62 Dunham Rd., Beverly, MA through August 4th.

If you’re thinking of heading up to Beverly to see the North Shore Music Theatre’s production of “Wizard of Oz”, but are a little skittish because you’re afraid that the stage version couldn’t possibly live up to the iconic and brilliant film on which it is based, just relax and go. This production, while not a note-for-note copy of the movie version, is a terrific adaptation that not only honors the original musical screenplay, but the modifications that it makes in order to bring it to the stage (including some very funny additional dialogue) actually enhance the experience for theatergoers. While I often found myself wondering, ‘How are they going to stage this?, during the show, the answer was usually, ‘Very cleverly, thank you.’ But what makes the “Wizard of Oz” arguably the best movie musical film of all time is the memorable score, which is beautifully enhanced by some imaginative choreography in this production and the solid cast does a great job of interpreting the musical numbers.

The success of any production of “Oz” begins with the casting of Dorothy, and the producers really hit the nail on the head with the casting of Emerson junior Danielle Bowan. If there is any performance that rings closest to the original, it is Bowan’s. While she understandably can’t be expected to measure up vocally to Judy Garland, she does a very nice job on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the other tunes, and if you closed your eyes, her breathy and enthusiastic delivery of her lines sounds a lot like Garland. Her three companions on the journey to Oz are equally up to the task, with Paul Sabala as the Scarecrow, Joe Moeller as the Tinman, and Lance Roberts nearly stealing the second half of the show as the Cowardly Lion. Sabala is an exceptionally lithe dancer and pays a nice homage to Ray Bolger with his performance. Their nemesis, the Wicked Witch, is played with an enthusiastically evil glee by the talented Laura Jordan, and North Shore Music Theatre veteran David Coffee (who will play Scrooge in the annual “Christmas Carol” production this year for the 20th time) plays the Wizard/Professor Marvel with great zeal.

The show contains a lot of additional material that was not found in the original 1939 movie production, and while some purists might object, the addition of some scenes and characters really augmented, rather than detracted from, the production. It is also worth noting that the musical additions were in fact penned by the show’s creators but were removed from the movie for time and creative reasons. Crows that mocked the Scarecrow were inserted into the scene where Dorothy first meets her friend for instance, and they added a some nice harmonies to “If I Only Had A Brain”. The following scene where Dorothy meets the Tin Woodman is also altered, supplanting the frightening trees that Dorothy takes apples from with some pretty damn sexy ones, and the trio of trees contribute to a bang-up song and dance number.

Because the movie was made on a Hollywood soundstage with a big budget, you might wonder how they achieved all those way cool special effects for this show and found enough little people in the Greater Boston theater pool to play the munchkins. The munchkin problem was solved with the next best thing – kids – and this was a surprisingly solid batch of young professionals with a couple of real standouts. The opening scene in Oz was executed beautifully by both the kids and the radiant Donna English as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (who doubled as Auntie Em) descending from the sky to greet Dorothy. As with the film, the scene exploded in vibrant color, highlighted by some quirky and creative costuming. As a matter of fact, the costumes throughout the production were really impressive, especially in the scenes set in Munchkinland and the Emerald City.

As for the special effects of the show, the producers decided wisely to keep it simple (although there were a number of witches, wizards and flying monkeys spending a good deal of time flying through the air). The scenic design was spare but effective, and the design team made great use of the space in this cozy theater, setting up the Wicked Witch’s Chambers and other locations directly behind the seats of patrons in cordoned-off areas, which brought the production up really close to the audience. This is a terrific show for both kids and adults, and is my most widely recommended show that I’ve seen all year.

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