‘Wizard of Oz’ national tour has ageless audience appeal at Chicago Theatre

By Philip Potempa

My last trip down the Yellow Brick Road for a visit to the Land of Oz, as a stage landscape, large national tour, was in May 2014.

It was the newly imagined production with Danielle Wade as Dorothy, courtesy of this actress being chosen by Canadian audiences via the CBC TV’s reality show “Over The Rainbow.” While true to the MGM classic 1939 film screenplay and containing all the beloved Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg songs from the Oscar-winning movie score, that touring production also offered new songs by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. But the characterizations for all the key roles had been re-invented by that duo, and I recall wishing I could have my own audience with the mighty and powerful Wizard of Oz to sort out what I was seeing and hearing.

Fortunately, all the magic and traditions of the beloved characters first dreamed up by author L. Frank Baum are still to be found following their hopes and ambitions with a new “The Wizard of Oz” musical tour presented by the Madison Square Garden Company with final Chicago performances running through Sunday, May 20 at  the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.

Dorothy played by Kalie Kaimann and Glinda, played by Ashleigh Thompson, are in the featured cast of the new national tour of “The Wizard of Oz.” (Photo Credit: Denise S. Trupe)

A large and talented cast share the stage with fun special effects, a parade of bright and colorful costumes and energetic and entertaining choreography to transport audiences of all ages from the Gale Family farm in Kansas to the enchanted scenes over the rainbow. From animated apple trees and fields of poppies to Munchkinland, the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West and sparkling Emerald City, this two and half-hour stage adventure following Dorothy and her new friends is true to the big screen telling made so famous by Judy Garland and Co.

Director Dean Sabon is teamed with Amy McCleary for an opulent and well-crafted stage work ideal for all ages, seasoned with enough whimsical flair and humorous accents to keep excitement high but never too scary for young audiences who might be enjoying this as their first live theatre experience for a large scale production.

Kalie Kaimann is cast as Dorothy and she brightens each scene with a mix of favorite qualities from the little girl known to generations from the big screen adaptation, as well as her own unique and spirited character punctuation. From her beautiful first song celebrating a place “Over the Rainbow” to scenes fighting twister winds and countering mean Miss Gulch, Kaimann captures the transformation of Dorothy by the journey’s finale.

Kaimann’s performance is nicely framed by the lively antics and top-tier chemistry of her brick-skipping companions. Chris Duir‘s turn as

Emily Perzan is cast as The Wicked Witch of the West casting a spell over audiences in the new national tour of “The Wizard of Oz.”
(Photo Credit: Denise S. Trupe)

Scarecrow is warm and inviting as he leads the way and matches wits with his likeable counterparts. Christopher Russell succeeds in bringing to life one of the most difficult identities of Dorothy’s crew, Tinman, who easily exudes both heart and soul with Russell’s “If I Only Had a Heart.” Victor Legarreta perfectly balances the line of silly and sympathetic in the skin of the Cowardly Lion. All three actors easily shine in their duties as both their Oz mainstay characters as well as their dual Kansas farmhand personas in the opening scenes. They are joined by four-legged performer Murphy the Terrier as devoted Toto, always ranked as an audience favorite.

Wearing the witchs’ capes, hat and crown for this run are Ashleigh Thompson as Glenda, the Good Witch of the North (as well as playing Auntie Em) and Emily Perzan glowing green as the Wicked Witch of the West (and peddling herself early on as Miss Gulch.) Both are favorites who easily cast a spell over audiences in every one of their scenes. Kirk Lawrence gets to have his own fun gazing into Professor Marvel’s crystal ball early on, and then granting wishes for the finale as the title character.

Besides the smiling standards “Over the Rainbow,” “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” and “If I Only Had A Brain,” large and impressive musical numbers like “Merry Old Land of Oz” and “Jitterbug” are certain favorites for all. The large ensemble keeps busy with entertaining quick-change moments popping in and out of the story as everyone from cackling crows and Munchkins to Winkie guards and the inhabitants of the Emerald City.

Projections by Dan Efros combined with the work of set and costume designer Tim McQuillen-Wright dazzle and delight throughout.

A large and talented cast brings Dorothy’s travels over the rainbow to audiences in the new national tour of L. Frank Baum’s beloved story. (Photo Credit: Denise S. Trupe)

Dorothy’s clicking heels from the glittering Ruby Red Slippers are a welcome sound from the stage of the history-rich Chicago Theatre.

Afterall, Baum lived in Chicago while writing many of his “Oz” tales, and one of the earliest stage productions of “The Wizard of Oz” opened in Chicago in 1902. More than a century later, the classic line from Dorothy is still true: “There’s no place like home.”

Tickets for “The Wizard of Oz” range from $39 – $129 and are available online at www.chicagotheatre.com and are also at The Chicago Theatre box office, all Ticketmaster outlets, and Ticketmaster phone charge at (800) 745-3000. FYI: www.wizardofoztour.com

Philip Potempa is a veteran journalist and published author. He can be reached philip@ofnotoriety.com.