Load up the mini-van and picnic basket. A tornado of family fun is on display at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista where The Wizard of Oz opened on Wednesday night.
Sure, you could stay home and watch the beloved 1939 film on video. You could sit by yourself in the dark and recite one of the famous lines: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” “There’s no place like home,” “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” and my favorite, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too.” Or just count the number of times you’ve already seen the film. Let’s see, Thanksgiving 1986, when I had the flu…
But this isn’t your Great Grandma’s Wizard of Oz. This one has more dancing (giant dancing bugs, crows, and apple trees with thick red lips right out of an acid trip), an edgy Emerald City gang in aviator glasses, and pyrotechnics that make your hair stand up.
In the opening scene, you are transported to a dusty farm in Kansas, just before the cyclone hits. The weathered house and chicken coop on stage could easily blend into the rancho landscapes of Vista.
As Dorothy Gale, Carlin Castellano is a sweet and honest farm girl with authentically worn out boots and a pleasant voice. She doesn’t cry as much as Judy Garland did in the film, she’s hardly sad enough, but she stands up to the evil Miss Gulch, and she’s a superb dog handler.
Toto is played by a local rescue dog named Munchkin who is up for adoption. Honestly, when that dog runs to her and wags its little tail, hearts skip a beat.
The very theatrical Danette Holland plays both Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch and is given a few zingers. When Dorothy asks how she could be so mean, she answers in deadpan expression, “Practice,” which is funny because her face and pointy chin are painted brilliant green.
Ralph Johnson is especially likable as Uncle Henry, witty and effective without even trying. In a dual role, Laura Douciere is a sparkly Glinda who gets to ride on a giant bubble, and though she portrays a stern and protective Aunt Em, she is miscast there because she’s just too young and pretty under a gray wig.
Carson Twitchell is a kind, reserved Tinman who tap dances and blows real smoke out of his head. The jointless and rail-thin Stephen Petrovich endures bullying crows who dance a taunting soft shoe in giant talon footgear.
When the movie script was written, the part of the Wizard had been earmarked for WC Fields. Jim Chovick as Professor Marvel and Wizard taps into that dry crackly voice and short temper yet maintains the character of a sad old man who hides behind a curtain.
But nobody can compete with the Cowardly Lion, played by Moonlight favorite Randall Dodge. I have to admit, I’ve always been partial to the Lion in the film, and Dodge takes the sniveling and tale-holding to the extreme. His versatility as an actor is remarkable. Just last month he was the lead in South Pacific, the suave Frenchman Emile de Becque, and now he’s giving the lion more camp than in the original film, perhaps too much.
Moonlight’s musical adaptation is more than a movie clone. Adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company, this “Wizard” takes two steps forward and one step back. The show is surprisingly high tech and fiery, which youngsters love, and includes elements which film buffs and anyone over 30 will appreciate.
In its day, the film was a technical wonder. To create the twister, techs spun a 25-foot muslin stocking around miniatures of farms. It’s been said that the early Technicolor process required a huge amount of lighting, which would heat the set to over 100 degrees. Things went wrong. Actors playing the winged monkeys were hurt when piano wires holding them up snapped. Margaret Hamilton, who played the wicked witch, was burned, as was her stand-in.
Moonlight’s show spares no expense. Aerial harness flying and special effects run without a hitch, although I sweated every time a scrawny Munchkin kid pranced too close to the orchestra pit. The tornado that sends Dorothy and Toto to the Technicolor land beyond the rainbow is recreated with a new projection system that swirls scenes from the beloved film together with footage of Ms. Castellano’s spiraling giant head. A crystal ball has video appear inside it.
Creepy night sounds and wicked witch cackles come from behind and the sides, and make your head spin, thanks to a sinister sound system. Witches, monkeys, and Dorothy fly. The yellow brick road illuminates. A giant metal wizard head spews smoke. Flames shoot out of a broom stick. There’s even a wonderful change in the weather that I won’t reveal.
As for the big historical highlight, director/choreographer Roger Castellano adds the bizarre Jitterbug song and dance that was cut from the final version of the film, a bit of film trivia that makes film buffs go buggy.
“Oh the bees in the breeze and the bats in the trees
Have a terrible, horrible buzz
But the bees in the breeze and the bats in the trees
Couldn’t do what the jitter bug does.
So just be careful of that rascal
keep away from
A line in the film refers to the bugs, an artifact that makes no sense. The dance is rather tame for Jitterbug, but entertaining to be sure. I had hoped for something more strenuous and acrobatic, but rigid insect-bodied costumes wouldn’t allow for that.
There’s a big and talented cast – 13 adults and 21 children to play the Munchkins – and of course there are the classic songs: “Over The Rainbow,” “We’re Off To See The Wizard,” and “Follow The Yellow Brick Road.”
Everything in Moonlight’s “Wizard” is over the rainbow. Seeing it live outside is a rare treat. Enjoy the 20-piece orchestra under the keen direction of Elan McMahan. Savor the simple story about wanting to go home, and the whimsical costumes and freaky makeup. Bring some caffeinated drinks along, as the show runs till 10:30.
While there were moments when I longed for fewer sparks and tighter dialogue, my young companion was thrilled to see little kids in “totally cool” monkey costumes flying.
The Wizard of Oz plays through Aug. 10 at Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive (in Brengle Terrace Park), Vista. Wednesday through Sunday at 8 p.m. Tickets: (760) 724-2110