Starlight Theatre audiences have been watching Dorothy Gale get sucked up by a twister and the Wicked Witch get doused with a lethal bucket of water every few years since 1953.
Apparently, they’re always ready for more.
“The Wizard of Oz,” the show is called, and every version theatergoers at Starlight have seen was based on the 1939 MGM movie, which this year celebrates its 75th anniversary.
Folks turn out in big numbers every time. Even when the productions lack the polish you’d expect on Broadway. Even in the ’70s when Jo Anne Worley, who played the Wicked Witch, entertained the audience with a improvised, 10-minute monologue while technicians wrestled with malfunctioning stage equipment. And again in the ’90s, when Phyllis Diller ad-libbed her way out of a comical backstage miscue with the ruby slippers.
The Starlight audience can be a forgiving bunch, but the multigenerational enthusiasm we’ve seen for the show in Kansas City probably says something about the material.
The movie, based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” is inherently poignant and laced with understated humor. And the stage show uses all those classic tunes by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. And, of course, it begins and ends in Kansas, a 15-minute drive from Swope Park.
So when word trickled out from London a few years ago that one of the wealthiest showmen on earth, Andrew Lloyd Webber, was going to revisit the story and create a new stage adaptation of the movie, it occasioned the eye-rolling and cynical rejoinders typically inspired by vainglorious over-reach from powerful entrepreneurs: What, Lord Lloyd Webber is going to “improve” the show?
Now Kansas City audiences can judge for themselves.
Filling in the gaps
“The Wizard of Oz” returns to Kansas City’s venerable open-air theater for the 10th time Tuesday, but this is the Webber version, which has never been staged here before.
The North American touring company, which originated in Toronto, is performing the show Webber fashioned with director and co-adapter Jeremy Sams. The show includes the Arlen-Harburg songs as well as new tunes Webber wrote with his on-again, off-again writing partner, lyricist Tim Rice.
Critics have given more or less respectful, if not delirious, notices. They’ve praised the almost all-Canadian cast while expressing a degree of skepticism about changes in the story, which seem designed to keep us in Kansas longer than the movie does.
Intermingling the Webber-Rice contributions with the Arlen-Harbug classics has met limited enthusiasm. The design elements, which some critics praised more than the show itself, emulate the film’s switch from black-and-white Kansas to Technicolor Oz.
Webber’s intent wasn’t so much to “improve” the material as enhance it, said associate director Madeline Paul.
Paul, who worked on the original London production and is responsible for the touring version, said Webber and Sams shared a desire to fill in narrative gaps in the original film.
“There was never a song for the Wicked Witch or for Glinda,” she said. “Nor was there a song for Professor Marvel. He’s introduced so early in the movie and then kind of forgotten about.”
The new songs include “Nobody Understands Me,” expressing Dorothy’s adolescent anxieties, which appears early in the show. The Wicked Witch gets a big number designed as a show-stopper, “Red Shoe Blues.” Marvel sings “Wonders of the World” in the early going.
“At the end of the show, there’s a beautiful new ballad called ‘Already Home,’ that Glinda sings that says home is in your heart and you can always go home again,” Paul said.
Iconic source material
Paul worked on the show as it evolved and has a unique perspective.
“I was there from the grassroots,” Paul said. “The production we did in London was quite different (physically) from what opened in Toronto two years later. So (designer) Rob Jones did a complete reworking of the set for Toronto and then he redesigned it again so it could travel with the tour.”
Webber’s argument, according to press accounts, is that while the movie is a classic, it wasn’t written to be a stage musical. His goal was to find a way to transform it into a “true musical.”
“Andrew was a daily presence in rehearsals in the original production, and he would be the first person to say that when the film was released 75 years ago, it was recognized and still is as the very first American fairy tale. Being no fool, he realized you don’t want to tamper with something that iconic.”
Webber and Sams, she said, “kind of took the show apart to figure out a way of putting it together again for the stage, but without tampering with anything that works — which is just about everything in the movie.”
And, of course, the bones of the story are still there.
“There’s a great deal of respect given to the original intentions of the movie,” she said. “‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ is still there and ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’ and all the songs you love. I think it’s a testament to the story that L. Frank Baum wrote that audiences can still be swept away by this story.”
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday through Sunday
“The Wizard of Oz” opens Tuesday and runs through Sunday at Starlight Theatre. Call 816-363-7827 or go to www.kcstarlight.com.