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'Oz' finds there is a place at home on the stage

TAMPA — It would seem like folly to try to replicate The Wizard of Oz. But that hasn't stopped a new production of John Kane's stage adaptation of the movie, directed by Nigel West, which opened Tuesday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Here's what you need to know about it:

How's Dorothy? Cassie Okenka doesn't sound like Judy Garland (who could?), but her singing is girlishly sweet in Over the Rainbow. She has spunky camaraderie with her friends in Oz and bonds nicely with Toto.

And the technical effects? The production relies on projections of film and animation that do an adequate, if not spectacular, job of depicting the cyclone. Kansas is lit in sepia tones to suggest the movie's black and white sequences. Glinda drifts around in a spheroid. Nikko is the only winged monkey that flies.

If you can't beat the movie … The set design (by Tim McQuillen-Wright, who also did costumes) plays up the movie angle, with a Munchkinland sign that resembles the Hollywood sign and Emerald City sharing the art deco lines of the Paramount Pictures studio gates.

Theatrical effects: Less is more when the apple trees are played by women in evening gowns with branches on their heads. Leigh Constantine's choreography in the poppy field is a ballroom dance that features an eye-popping costume change from red to white.

When less isn't more: The classic score by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg is not well served by the skimpy orchestra of nine players (and no strings).

Local heroines: Some of the Munchkins are played by girls from Tampa's Entertainment Revue, who sing and dance up a storm in Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead and Yellow Brick Road.

How family-friendly? The show is pretty long, at 2 1/2 hours, and the second act lacks boffo songs, but the kids seated near me — including one girl impeccably dressed as Dorothy — were enthralled.

Friends and foe of Dorothy's: The Scarecrow (Noah Aberlin), Tinman (Chris Kind) and Lion (Jason Simon) are sketchier than in the movie, but their signature numbers remain joyously intact. Pat Sibley is more annoying than scary as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West.

Biggest hand: For Toto, of course, played by Snickers, a 9-year-old Cairn terrier. Dorothy's little dog was trained by William Berloni, who was backstage Tuesday, tending to every need (mainly eating and sleeping) of Snickers and Princess, who sometimes steps in as Toto. Berloni is Broadway's best-known animal trainer. For Annie, he found and trained the original Sandy, now deceased, and keeps the dog's ashes at his home in Connecticut.

Should you go? By all means. Sure, it's not the movie, but the stage version has charms of its own. For children, it's a great introduction to theater. And for adults, what better show is there for these uncertain times?

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

'Oz' finds there is a place at home on the stage 10/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 16, 2008 1:43pm]

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