Adapted by Phillip Klapperich
Based on L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Directed by Tommy Rapely
Produced by The House Theatre of Chicago
Playing at the Chopin Theatre, Chicago
The Wizard of ZzZz
First produced in their 3rd season, The House Theatre of Chicago’s The Great & Terrible Wizard of Oz—their own adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book with a “modern twist”—returned this past week to close their 15th season. An elaborate set design (by Collette Pollard) complete with life-size puppets (designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock) and actual flying monkeys (choreographed by Ryan Bourque) give this staging an uncommonly high production value. However, for a classic tale that was epitomized in its Broadway and film productions and has since gone on to saturate our American culture this charmingly cute production with a “modern twist” brings nothing remarkably new to experience: the Broadway hits are absent, replaced by a few lame indi-folk ballads; and the story itself is strangely circuitous, plodding, and lacking in dramatic excitement. My lasting impression: Why was this made?
The story begins with Dorothy (Kara Davidson), accompanied by hand-puppet Toto (Joey Steakley), visiting a college to interview to become a student. The friendly admission panel asks her questions only to determine that, while her general interest in every subject is commendable, her lack of a specific passion makes her unfit to begin her college journey with them at this time. As the topics of Dorothy’s passion and college attendance never again come up, you can quickly file this scene away in your “extraneous: to be deleted” memory folder. From what I can tell, this set-up and the fact that Dorothy has a cellphone with a rock ringtone comprises virtually all of the “modern twist.” A modern twist, indeed.
Immediately after her disappointing interview with the congenial admission panel, Dorothy returns home to find a tornado ripping through her Kansas home. Unable to find her aunt and uncle (who never show up in the story), and apparently not quick enough to hide herself in the empty cellar, Dorothy is man-handled by the tornado—dramatized by several actors lifting her up and spinning her around—and set down in the fantastical world of Oz. Admission: Granted.
When she comes to, Dorothy finds herself in Munchkin Land, adored and praised by its wee inhabitants as the “witchslayer” who crushed the evil Witch of the East with a house. After the Munchkins deliver a story in pantomime to get Dorothy caught up with the happenings of the place, Glinda (Amanda de la Guardia) shows up to offer additional praise, followed shortly thereafter by the wicked Witch of the West (AnJi White) who covets the boots that adorn Dorothy’s feet (in her defense, these boots did belong to West’s slain sister, East).
Despite the pomp, Dorothy just wants to go home and doesn’t care to be a witchslayer. The only way to get home, she learns, is by venturing to the Emerald City of Oz and asking the Wizard to grant her wish. Against the warning of Glinda, Dorothy and Toto begin their quest to the Emerald City.
Upon their journey, Dorothy and Toto meet three companions: the Scarecrow (Christine Mayland Perkins), the Tin Woodsman (Jeremy Sonkin), and the Cowardly Lion (Michael E. Smith). The episodic nature of these encounters, punctuated by progression-stalling asides of an historical and musical nature, make this portion of the production the most tiresome. These encounters simply lack the awesome, larger-than-life quality of a fantastical tale; either that, or they fall flat because I still haven’t discerned what Dorothy’s “super-objective” is, what her quest is beyond merely returning home.
Perkins’ Scarecrow is fun and comical; Sonkin’s Tinman gets an introductory song that tells the history of how he came to be all tin; and Smith’s Cowardly Lion is also there, fun and comical. But none of their impressive charm is enough to fill the vacuous feeling behind the gnawing question rising dangerously in my mind, “Why should I care about any of these characters?”
The band formed, the fellowship of five (including Toto) finally arrive at the Emerald City, where the Wizard informs Dorothy that she still must slay the Witch of the West before he will hear their wishes. Apparently the Wizard of Oz (Benjamin Sprunger) and the Witch of the West are arch rivals who also Tango together occasionally, because that is exactly what we’re treated to next—with a little background exposition thrown in, of course, to tell us how the rivalry started. All for naught because they never meet again.
As Dorothy and her gang search for the Witch of the West, they are assaulted and eventually overcome by the notorious flying monkeys, summoned by the Witch herself. The monkeys capture Dorothy and brutally kill Toto, and then we are subjected to a eulogy for the dead hand puppet, which, again, feels narratively pointless. Dorothy next confronts the Witch with the intent of giving her the boots she’s after, but the encounter does not go as Dorothy intended and a fight ensues in which the Witch is ultimately doused with water and killed.
The story draws to an end with the unmasking of the Wizard of Oz, who defends his strange practices of deceit and demagoguery as the role of one who provides meaning to the inhabitants of Oz. Dorothy refutes his idea of meaning and promises to provide “something else” in which the Ozlandians can find their meaning—though that “something else” is never specified for us, who, really, were quite fine living under the fantastical lies of the old practices.
Finally, the three sojourners of lacking discover they have gained their brains, heart, and courage through their smart, tender, and brave actions along the journey, and the story concludes with a tearful farewell, as Dorothy leaves to continue her journey alone across the desert of Oz in search of a way home. (Yes, you read that right: Dorothy does not make it home to Kansas).
I never imagined my wish for the Wizard of Oz would be some contemporary angle to his eponymous tale, but that just goes to show what this production was lacking: any narrative angle whatsoever. Is this the story of Dorothy discovering her passion? Discovering the meaning of family—of “home”? Discovering her strength as an orphaned woman? The adaptation raises many themes, but never decides on one to carry out. Perhaps this is the “modern twist:” upended narrative expectations.
Nevertheless, this lack of an establishing premise renders The House’s two-hour long adaptation very long indeed. The spectacle of effects is amazing and would, I think, delight children; the acting is spirited, cute, and totally within the fantastical world of Oz. But the story itself, so told, feels meaningless and disappointingly boring: with so much imagination already on the stage, what this production lacks is a sharper focus in the script.
Reviewed on 9 April 2017.
Playing at Chopin Theatre, 1543 West Division St., Chicago. Tickets are $30 – $45, with same-day $15 tickets available for Students and Industry. For tickets and information, call at 773-769-3832, or visit TheHouseTheatre.com. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through May 7th. Running time is 2 hours with one intermission.