There are few works of fiction (and even fewer films) that are as indelibly recorded in our collective memory as "The Wizard of Oz."
There are 13 novels, starting in 1902 with L. Frank Baum's initial hit, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." A popular Broadway musical in the same year. Six-plus films. Decades of TV airings. An empire of merchandise. All resulting in a profound reach into every American generation.
Our fondness for Oz might ensure interest in the Fine Arts Center's holiday production of the work, A Royal Shakespeare Company script that follows the 1939 film musical very closely, but it comes with expectations of the grandeur, intimacy and sweetness of the film. And for all its promise (Flying monkeys! Ruby slippers! A hot air balloon!), director Scott RC Levy has freighted it with so many bells and whistles - and sadly, many that stumbled badly - that much of the charm as well as the emotional core of the story is lost. What's left is earnest and thanks, perhaps, to our attachment to the work, extremely underwhelming.
A case in point: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," the emblematic tune of the film, star Judy Garland and, ultimately, lounge singers the world over. Rather than a soaring, emotional anthem to dreams finally realized, Lacey Connell delivers it with a curious flatness of an earnest child. Indeed, adult actress Connell crafts Dorothy as a pouty/perky Shirley Temple. As lavishly as the show borrows from the film, there could have been more Garland here, who never played down to Dorothy or her audience.
Granted, Connell was busy: Besides being in every scene, she was largely responsible for babysitting Toto, played by two slightly chubby but extremely patient Cairn terriers named Mary and Ferghus. But as W.C. Fields once said, "Never work with animals or children" - and Toto might have been that one-too-many thing Connell had to manage.
Managing one too many things seemed to be a theme in this opening weekend matinee of "The Wizard of Oz." Costumes (the Cowardly Lion's back was unzipped for much of one scene), set pieces (the Yellow Brick Road was narrow and difficult for the actors to cross dancing) and effects (the Wicked Witch's broom handle shot fire like an ailing Bic lighter) proved problematic. The best effect, in fact, was ruined when smoke completely obscured the image of the Wizard's face, which, like the movie, was scowling down from a screen above our heroes.
Just about all the actors (with the exception of the child munchkins, who seemed thrilled to be there) seemed ill at ease or distracted. Eryn Carman is a terrific actress, especially as a baddie (Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd"), but she seemed unable to breathe much life into Almira Gulch or the Wicked Witch of the West. Brian Harris filled out the Cowardly Lion nicely (his makeup was most impressive) and his trained tenor voice provided a pleasant surprise in Act II. As the Tin Woodman, Zachary Seliquini Guzman ("The Drowsy Chaperone") danced up a thrilling storm. And the backdrops for Kansas and the forests - created by scenic designer Christopher L. Sheley - were downright artful and also very effective.
"The Wizard of Oz"
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Dec. 29
Where: Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.
Tickets: $37-$47, $20 students; 634-5583, csfinearts center.org