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Review: Glitter, polish make 'Wizard of Oz' gleam on stage

Danielle Wade as Dorothy, Jamie McKnight as Scarecrow, Lee MacDougall as Lion, Mike Jackson as Tin Man. 
Published Apr. 16, 2014

CLEARWATER — About the time Dorothy found herself in the precarious situation of having a pair of fine red pumps soldered to her feet, enraging an unstable green witch who wanted them for herself, my friend Lisa leaned in and whispered:

"I never realized until now that The Wizard of Oz is about women fighting over shoes."

This is what happens when you see something familiar out of context. You realize new things. You think about it differently. You make insights.

The world is used to The Wizard of Oz on the screen, not the stage. So it was a great twist to see the classic story brought to life at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Tuesday, to drink it in a fresh way. (It should be noted, Tampa Bay is currently having an Oz-fest as kindred show The Wiz is playing now from American Stage in St. Petersburg.)

Since The Wizard of Oz story has been around more than 100 years, and on screen since 1939, everyone has been conditioned to accept that flying monkeys and yellow brick roads and emerald palaces and Ambien poppy fields and smallish people who dance in curly shoes and eat lollipops are totally regular. But they're not! This stuff is wonderfully weird even today and can withstand a modern polish.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Jeremy Sams' adaptation of The Wizard of Oz for the stage makes good use of the trippy, Cirque du Soleil elements of the narrative. This is a full-on visual assault designed by Robert Jones, in a good way, with pyrotechnics, animation, moving parts, rainbows, lights and glitter — so much glitter.

That's to say nothing of the exquisite costumes also by Jones. The Wicked Witch of the West (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan) and Glinda (Robin Evan Willis) have gotten fashionable makeovers, one clad in a dress of twisting green leaves, the other in a stunning silvery gown and matching pointed wig, calling to mind Effie Trinket from the Hunger Games movies. And Lion (Lee MacDougall) — forget about it. You will die when you see his look.

The show felt updated, modern in tone. It's great for kids, but throws in some jokes for parents that should sail over young heads (like the cowardly Lion being a "friend of Dorothy"), and teases some of the antiquated ideas and corny lines from the movie. A handful of new show tunes by Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice balance out the old favorites, especially a big ensemble number led by the Wicked Witch in the second act.

But make no mistake. This is The Wizard of Oz through and through, from the second Dorothy (Danielle Wade) opens her mouth to sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, to the crucial moment she melts the mean lady (the audience was screaming and clapping with unbridled joy Tuesday, as if the Jets had just won the Super Bowl). And they clapped even harder when Toto, an adorable rescue terrier named Nigel, made his curtain call. He's a wonder of training, behaving like a dream for the duration.

A word of advice — try to get a seat in the middle of the auditorium. At Ruth Eckerd Hall, that means more difficulty getting out to the bathroom or the bar, but it means you'll have a better view for the stunning special effects, and won't get distracted by technical goings on in the wings.

Despite the jazzed-up dialogue, flashy set and any new revelations about life you might take away, The Wizard of Oz does a fine job hammering home that rich old lesson everyone needs now and then: What you've been looking for was really right in front of you all along.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

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