For the last few years, the San Diego theatre community has been having The Wizard of Oz fever. Vista’s Moonlight Amphitheatre featured a hit adaptation of the classic film in 2013, Wicked played at the Civic Theatre last winter, and in 2016 a live interpretation of the movie with additional music from Andrew Lloyd Webber is also going to run at the Civic. In the middle of all these trips to the Emerald City comes Lamb’s Players Theatre’s staging of Oz, a musical based solely on L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Having the world premiere staged in Coronado seems inevitable, because as Producing Artistic Director Robert Smyth points out in the program, Baum wrote many Oz novels during winters when he vacationed on the island.
Those that have seen the motion picture know the premise. In Kansas, Dorothy (Megan Carmitchel) finds her life with Aunt Em (Associate Artistic Director Deborah Gilmour Smyth) and Uncle Henry (Neil Dale) to be a boring and ordinary one. Once a deadly tornado comes to her town, she is whisked away to the land of Oz.
Dorothy hopes to leave Oz and find a way to return to her home. She soon goes on a quest with a Scarecrow (James Royce Edwards), Woodsman (Bryan Barbarin) and Lion (Fernando Vega) to meet the Wizard (John Rosen) who can potentially help Dorothy reunite with her family.
Many audience members will be caught off guard by the sophistication of Jon Lorenz’s musical numbers. His tunes do not feel dumbed down for younger children. Instead, Lorenz’s melodies consist primarily of bluegrass. The opening number, “Gray,” which is an ode to yearning, makes it perfectly clear that Lorenz wants to take the material as seriously as possible.
During the introduction, Nathan Peirson’s washed out lighting feels similar to an old photograph. This is in deep contrast with the fantastical land Dorothy crashes into, which is full of vivid uses of colors including blue and green.
Associate Artistic Director, Kerry Meads, has to juggle a lot of technical elements as Dorothy’s journey progresses. Mike Buckley’s set, Jeanne Reith’s costumes and Deborah Smyth’s sound design create an environment with allure and danger at every turn. However, she does not allow the spectacle to overwhelm the space.
A strong aspect of Lorenz’s adaption is his exploration of the characters. Carmitchel has the vocals and gentle personality for Dorothy, while also adding inner strength that grows in Act 2.
Vega and Edwards are quite funny and very comfortable with slapstick humor; however the most dramatically compelling of Dorothy’s friends turns out to be the Woodsman played by Barbarin. In a standout song, “Hollow,” the Woodsman painfully sings to Dorothy and Scarecrow about his grim past. His solo is true to Baum’s backstory for the Woodsman and is far darker than The Tin Man’s introductory tune from the silver screen journey, “If I Only Had a Heart.”
The primary villain avoids being labeled as a stereotypical antagonist. Deborah Smyth portrays the vicious Witch of the West with malicious anger, yet she is able to develop some empathy. In the musically complex melody, “Only Right,” the Witch reveals that her evil personality grew partially because of resentment she has towards the Wizard. Smyth’s rich acting and singing allows the audience to understand the Witch on a deeper psychological level.
Although a fresh interpretation of Baum’s writing, a minor issue is that certain songs owe a debt to previous renditions of Oz. For example, the song that introduces Dorothy and her pals to the Emerald City, “City of Emeralds,” is not too different from the motion picture ditty in the imperial capital, “The Merry Old Land of Oz.” So much of Lorenz’s music has such an unpredictable quality, that the more familiar moments cannot help but feel distracting.
Despite unavoidable instances of déjà vu, Oz has more than enough beautiful singing, creative direction and emotional depth for kids and adults. Baum would likely be proud to know that different theatres in San Diego continue to pay tribute to his popular adventures.