Watching children clap along to “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead!” is only half the fun of seeing The Wizard of Oz at National Theatre.
The real fun is clapping along yourself.
For an hour and a half, the musical’s exceptional touring company wisks its audience back to childhood, where apple trees talk, monkeys fly and there really is a magical land over the rainbow.
The show’s nostalgic pull is inescapable; it is nearly identical to the 1939 MGM film, right down to the expressions on the characters’ faces. But on stage, L. Frank Baum’s classic story sparkles, proof that the best tales can be told in any medium.
At the show’s opening Thursday, the audience was filled with children, several of them dressed in gingham dresses and shiny red slippers, toting stuffed Toto dogs. Their visible excitement was the best review a show could get.
Magnificent special effects flawlessly take the story from screen to stage – the only effect that couldn’t be duplicated was the Wicked Witch’s sky-written message to Dorothy. But everything else is true to the movie: the Gales’ house spins through the air, balls of fire threaten the Scarecrow, Glinda floats in on a bubble.
And remember how impressed you were as a kid when black-and-white Kansas became Technicolor Munchkinland? It happens here too; shades of gray explode into a kaleidoscope of color when Dorothy’s house lands over the rainbow.
But spectacular effects are only part of it – the show’s cast is impeccably cheerful and convincingly frightened, right on cue. Seventy-eight-year-old Mickey Rooney, who has been a fixture on the sliver screen almost since birth, plays the Wizard in his signature wacky way. His first scene on stage (as the scatter-brained Professor Marvel) drew a rousing ovation opening night.
Rooney is a natural as the Wizard. He is kooky at all the right times, playing multiple roles with charm and exuberance.
But Rooney’s marquee performance doesn’t overshadow the abilities of his costars, who have lesser-known names but just as much talent.
Jessica Grov?, who at 17 has played Dorothy for three years, is marvelous as the young Kansan who discovers that happiness is right in her own backyard. In a show that strives to be a remake of the film, Grov? nails Judy Garland’s inflection and expressions to a T. She has a knack for drawing the audience’s eyes wherever she is, and her bright smile and strong voice had more than a few little girls clicking their heels.
As Dorothy’s friends, Dirk Lumbard (Tin Man), Francis Ruivivar (Cowardly Lion) and Kevin Steele (filling in for Casey Colgan as the Scarecrow) revive the kind of physical comedy that marked early films. The trio brings to life some of the most memorable characters in American film in a way few actors could.
Even little Toto (played by a well-behaved Plenty) shines on stage, drawing delighted exclamations from the audience with his tail-wagging, nose-licking performance.
The company – Munchkins, Winkies, flying monkeys, talking trees, dancing poppies and Oz citizens – puts on an extraordinary show, setting the stage ablaze with color and song. And the costumes and sets work beautifully to bring Dorothy’s dream alive.
The colors, characters and music of Baum’s timeless tale appeal instantly to children, but The Wizard of Oz is more than just a bedtime story. It is a reminder that there was a time in all our lives that we believed scarecrows could talk and witches on broomsticks were real. A time when the only limits on where we could go were the boundaries of our imaginations.
The Wizard of Oz continues at the National Theatre through March 14.