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Theater Review:

Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre’s "THE WIZARD OF OZ" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater


It would be as harrowing – and nearly as futile – as Dorothy’s quest to return to Kansas for any theater to even attempt to replicate the 1939 MGM cult-classic movie, "The Wizard of Oz." But, two years ago, Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre – under Dominic Missimi’s wry and imaginative direction – brought L. Frank Baum’s fantastical story to scintillating theatrical life. As part of its "Summer on Stage" series, Chicago Shakespeare Theater has invited Marriott to remount its 1999 production, which is ideal for the family-oriented tourist throngs strolling along Navy Pier.

John Kane adapted the motion picture for the Royal Shakespeare Company. And it stays true to the magical plight of Dorothy Gale, who gets swept into Munchkinland during a tornado and must face countless challenges (the Wicked Witch of the West being the biggest) along the Yellow Brick Road – only to discover that the power to survive and flourish exists within us all. The musical preserves the film’s spunky and glorious melodies by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, including the rambunctious "Jitterbug" number that landed on the cutting-room floor.

The Marriott-CST staging is a slightly abridged version aimed at youngsters who couldn’t sit for more than 2 hours knowing that a giant Ferris wheel, boat rides, and popcorn and cotton candy vendors beckon just outside the theater’s doors. It’s also not a flawless piece of theater despite clever special effects – from hand-operated monkey puppets and "Those Funny Little People" as the Munchkins to a self-satiric cyclone scene and a massive smoke-breathing Wizard’s head.

It’s understandable why the sweet little dog playing Toto may not be able to stay on stage the entire time. But it’s silly to introduce the dog in the beginning, then have Dorothy carry around a basket we’re led to believe holds Toto for the rest of the show. Since the Wicked Witch is particularly miffed at Toto, it seems counterproductive to hide the canine in such a hokey manner. His return in the end does not make up for his keenly felt absence over the previous two hours.

On the other hand, this "Wizard" provides enchanting visual treats, thanks to Katherine Ross’ confectionery scenic design; Pamela L. La Brosse’s inventive props; Karen Spahn’s eerie and ethereal lighting; Nancy Missimi’s outrageous, charismatic costumes; and Cecil Averett and David Naunton’s electrifying sound design.

Although Peggy Roeder’s delightfully vitriolic Wicked Witch and the haunted forest scene sparked a few whimpers from the youngest audience members, the kids started oohing and aahing as soon as Mary Ernster’s shimmering Glinda appeared or Lauren Frost’s innocent but undaunted Dorothy met one of her loyal traveling companions – Marc Robin’s enthusiastic Scarecrow; Mark-David Kaplan’s astute Tin Man; and Don Forston’s loopy and lovable Cowardly Lion.

Audiences of all ages can enjoy this show, with adults getting an especially loud kick out of the "Drag Queen" apple trees. One of them shakes her chest and asks, "Are you hinting that my apples aren’t what they ought to be?" The Wicked Witch has some great updated lines, too. She criticizes her dead sister (the Wicked Witch of the East) for wearing striped stockings with ruby slippers. She also refers to one of her military monkeys as "my simian minion" and the Tin Man as "my galvanized friend."

Sixteen-year-old Frost, best known as "Young Barbra" in Barbra Streisand’s "Timeless" concerts, imbues Dorothy with an unforced sweetness. Her mature and textured rendition of "Over the Rainbow" demonstrates her sublime gifts as a vocalist. During intermission, the young audience members could be heard raving about Dorothy so much, I wouldn’t be surprised if they started their own fan club.•

Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre’s production of "The Wizard of Oz" runs through Aug. 19 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand. Tickets: $28-$38. Call 312-595-5600.

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