About halfway through the overture for the Quad City Music Guild's preview performance of The Wizard of Oz, my friend, sporting a huge grin, turned to me and whispered, "I feel like I'm watching the movie." With the thrillingly familiar strains emanating from music director Valeree Pieper's splendid orchestra, I agreed completely, and it's fair to say that over the next two-and-three-quarters hours, that feeling almost never waned.
Yet while Music Guild's presentation honors and occasionally even echoes the classic film, it's never beholden to it; from minute one, this Wizard of Oz, under the glorious direction of Bob Williams, produces an enchantment that's all its own. Music Guild's production doesn't attempt to copy the movie, but is so superbly performed and designed that it thoroughly captures the magic of the movie. (The set, also by Williams, and costumes, by Peggy Freeman and Sue Woodard, are among the wittiest I've ever seen at Music Guild.) It's a transporting experience - watching it, you feel as if you were a child again, seeing The Wizard of Oz for the very first time, and wishing it would never end.
In many ways, you are seeing Oz for the very first time, as Williams frequently gives the material a fresh, vital re-imagining. The decision to cast the denizens of Oz as guests at a swanky, emerald-hued dinner party was an inspired one - it gave the production a welcome touch of maturity - and, collaborating with the wonderful choreographer Kathy Lafrenz, Williams' idea to stage scene changes with accompanying dance moves was fascinating; when the twister came, Dorothy's passage to Munchkinland was performed as a dream ballet à la the one in Oklahoma!, lending the sequence an imaginative, unexpected grace note.
Even Williams' less-fanciful inspirations, though, were unbelievably smart. In any stage production of Oz, Toto is a necessary evil; if he's well-trained (and the Toto here appeared sensationally well-trained), he's delightful, but also distracting - half the audience is paying attention to nothing but the dog. Here, though, Williams has made the marvelous decision to leave Toto in Munchkinland while Dorothy heads off to Oz - a few lines and situations have been altered to accommodate this - and you'd be amazed by how little you miss him. With one shrewd move, Williams handles the play's distraction factor and gives Dorothy a sweet goodbye moment with her pooch; the handling of Toto is a subtle but dramatic shift from the movie, and throughout Music Guild's Wizard of Oz, the actors are making subtle but dramatic shifts, too.
Some lines of dialogue here - lines we've been able to quote since we were knee-high - now have renewed life merely because they're pitched differently. The "Oil can! Oil can!" bit, for instance, is always entertaining, but when J. Adam Lounsberry's moving, endearing Tin Man recites it, dropping his timbre on the word "can," suddenly a line that you've been acquainted with your entire life becomes newly funny; you laugh not only at the cleverness of Lounsberry's reading, but at how surprised you are to be laughing at it in the first place.
Delightful comic jolts such as this - with the performers making familiar material feel brand-new - occur all throughout, and sometimes on a much grander scale. When Casey Battern's Wicked Witch of the West first shows up, delivering her tirades with put-upon disdain, the effect is a little jarring; she's less wicked than colossally annoyed. But as the show progresses, Battern's dyspeptic aggravation becomes richly comedic; it's a completely original interpretation of the role. Similarly, Erin Lounsberry is a funnier, feistier Glinda than I've ever seen before; this character who can often be a saccharine goody-two-shoes is, with Lounsberry in the role, a vibrant comedienne. (Her "Only bad witches are ugly" line is delivered as a hilarious, bitchy aside.)
Many performers, though, give exactly the performances you expect and want from The Wizard of Oz, and are no less remarkable. Sarah Walker invests her Dorothy with so much honesty and warmth that she's absolutely captivating, and Mike Millar is a divinely brainless Scarecrow - you truly believe that there's nothing but straw in that head. Scott Tunnicliff's Wizard is a forceful personality with eccentric, unpredictable vocal rhythms, and John Weigandt makes for both an adorable Uncle Henry and a goofily comedic palace guard. And as the Cowardly Lion, Christopher Thomas gives one of the most staggeringly fine musical-comedy performances I've ever seen. Ever. His channeling of Bert Lahr is sublime, but this is no mere impersonation - Thomas' gusto, confidence, and obvious love for the character read in his every second of stage time.
Is it a perfect show? Not quite. Though their characterizations and readings are spectacular, J. Adam Lounsberry, Battern, and Tunnicliff could stand to tighten their cues, and that damned "Jitterbug" number in Act II is a major dead spot. I understand why this peppy song-and-dance is often kept in stage versions of Oz, as it gives the underused ensemble members something to do, but it's pure filler; the routine neither advances the plot nor reveals character, which should be the only reasons for a musical number. (Unless, of course, you're aiming for filler.) It's a time-waster as the exact moment the stage action is reaching a peak, and the filmmakers were wise to cut it from the movie. I wish more producers would cut it from the play.
However, the Music Guild ensemble - whose lead vocals and harmonies are absolutely first-rate - performs the number sensationally well, and better yet, they seem to believe in it; the cast fools you into thinking that this throwaway sequence actually is essential to the show. For its entire length, this production exudes such sincerity in, and fondness for, the Wizard of Oz material that it's wholly irresistible, and for the show's target audience, it may well prove unforgettable. At the intermission, I ran into a friend who noted that her young grandson and the kids sitting around him were "completely still," and anyone who's attended a family musical knows that that's more than unusual - that's magical. As is everything about this wonderful Wizard of Oz.
For tickets, call (309)762-6610.