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The stage version of 'The Wizard of Oz' opens Oct. 14 in Tampa

Is any film more beloved than The Wizard of Oz? Sure, Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind, Casablanca and Singin' in the Rain have their fans, but for many moviegoers, there's something uniquely lovable about Dorothy's adventures in Oz.

Girls and women, especially, have always been in thrall to the movie and the novel on which it was based, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Cultural historians see it as a feminist allegory, because of the power it gives to the witches and Dorothy, in contrast to the bogus Wizard.

"The book, more so than the movie, is a kind of girl power fable,'' says Alisa Solomon, a journalism professor at Columbia University and author of the prize-winning Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender. "It is unusual for there to be this kind of bildungsroman structure with a young female protagonist who solves problems and is the emotional, intellectual, action center of the story.''

Now a new stage production is counting on that sort of appeal, which has been at the heart of the success of another show set in Oz. Wicked, the long-running musical prequel to The Wizard of Oz, tells the story of the green-skinned girl who grows up to be the Wicked Witch of the West. Its most avid fans are preteen and teen girls. (Gregory Maguire, author of the novel from which Wicked was adapted, has a new book set in Oz, A Lion Among Men, coming out this week.)

"We see The Wizard of Oz as skewing to preteens and teens,'' says Ken Gentry, chief executive of Networks Presentations, producer of the tour that opens Tuesday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. "I think people are going to want to introduce this title to their kids.''

However, Gentry says it's only a coincidence that Wicked and The Wizard of Oz are both on the road this season. They're not playing on the same series anywhere. "We thought that would complicate things,'' he says. "We're in places they're not, and they're in places we're not.''

The stage version of The Wizard of Oz is an adaptation by London's Royal Shakespeare Company. It hews closely to the movie but adds a number to fill out the second act. It's a song called Jitterbug that was cut from the movie.

"There's quite a difference of opinion about whether that should be in the show,'' director Nigel West says. "But in terms of the dynamic of the show, I think it's needed. Some of the movie's script I find a little flimsy in places. Jitterbug is a big production number, and it does extend the story.''

Cassie Okenka, seen as a contestant on MTV's Legally Blonde: The Search for Elle Woods (she was a finalist), plays Dorothy. She has big ruby slippers to fill in the role originated by Judy Garland, whose iconic status with gay men adds another interesting demographic twist to the audience for The Wizard of Oz.

In the 1939 MGM movie, when Dorothy sat down on a piece of farm machinery, with Toto perched on the seat, and broke into Over the Rainbow, she sang for generations of gay men.

"She's dreaming of a place over the rainbow that gets her out of her constraining, small-minded limitations in Kansas,'' Solomon says. "It's a kind of a fantasy place where people might be able to live out of the closet and away from intolerance, bigotry and homophobia.''

A "friend of Dorothy'' has long been a euphemism for a gay man. To Solomon, the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow represent "an alternative masculinity,'' she says. "The Lion refers to himself as a sissy, and even the Scarecrow and the Tin Man portray strengths that are typically characterized as belonging to men — intelligence and a kind of steely resolve of heart — in ways that are not typically masculinist.

The Wizard of Oz puts forward this idea of courage that is not blustering, of intelligence that is not blowhardy, of emotion that is freely expressed. I think all those things open it to joyous queer possibility.''

Solomon, who memorized the entire movie as a girl, objects to the moral of the story in which Dorothy says there is no place like home. "That's a terribly girly kind of lesson,'' she says, "to say that whatever they may dream of, the domestic sphere is where females must stay. But I think the rest of the movie contradicts that silly little lesson that gets tacked on the end and is not part of the original book.

"The action, the color, the characters, the songs, the fabulousness of Oz — all that is so much better than home in Kansas.''

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

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The Wizard of Oz

The stage adaptation of the movie opens Tuesday and runs through Oct. 19 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $38.50-$67.50. For Wednesday's 7:30 p.m. show, a free children's ticket (12 and under) is available with the purchase of a full-priced adult ticket. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; tbpac.org.

The stage version of 'The Wizard of Oz' opens Oct. 14 in Tampa 10/11/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 7:07pm]

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