Lawrence Toppman

‘Wizard of Oz’ dazzles, but it’s far from wonderful

Aaron Fried as Lion, Jay McGill as Tin Man, Morgan Reynolds as Scarecrow and Sarah Lasko as Dorothy in “We’re Off to Meet the Wizard.”
Aaron Fried as Lion, Jay McGill as Tin Man, Morgan Reynolds as Scarecrow and Sarah Lasko as Dorothy in “We’re Off to Meet the Wizard.”

If you think the movie “The Wizard of Oz” could stand alteration, you may wonder why neither the Wicked Witch of the West nor the Wizard has a solo song, or why the Cowardly Lion (alone among Dorothy’s pals) gets two.

Those conditions have been changed in the live-action “The Wizard of Oz,” which reached Belk Theater on a national tour Tuesday. Most of the numbers still come from composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg. But, Andrew Lloyd Webber (listed as “adapter” with Jeremy Sams) has written eight new tunes with longtime collaborator Tim Rice, who also provided fresh lyrics for some familiar ones.

The result is a bizarre, frequently entertaining, well-performed hybrid that tries to blend old-fashioned sentiment with sly modern humor, profound emotions with complex special effects, references from the 1939 screenplay with theatrical in-jokes. (“I am what I am,” proclaims the fey Lion, hitting a pose Albin might strike in “La Cage aux Folles.”)

This split personality cracks the show down the middle at last. After Dorothy returns to consciousness and accepts the love surrounding her on a modest Kansas farm, everyone else leaves the room. Suddenly she notices a red glow from her closet. The new moral? “There’s no place like home – as long as you get to keep those magical ruby slippers, baby!”

Simple tenderness just doesn’t sit well with the composer of “Evita,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the ultra-cynical “Sunset Boulevard.” So when Dorothy takes her farewell from her three friends in Oz, telling the Scarecrow “I think I’ll miss you most,” the Lion does a double take and sneers, “Really?”

Perhaps young audiences will appreciate this version most. The cyclone, one of many exciting digital projections, has terrifying force. Oz looks handsome, from up close or afar. The Witch of the West’s well-drilled Winkies do an intricate, “Stomp”-style dance number with sticks. Nigel, the huggable dog playing Toto, never fails to delight.

The humans aren’t far behind him. Sarah Lasko’s Dorothy seems like Annie in a pinafore, plucky and occasionally cracking wise. Mark A. Harmon handles the expanded part of Professor Marvel with con-man aplomb, and he makes a frightening wizard in his “Phantom”-like number. (Michael Crawford played this role in London.)

Shani Hadjian pops fine high notes in “Red Shoes Blues” and inspires fear as Miss Gulch even more than as the witch, whose puns and asides lessen the character’s effect. Jay McGill’s stalwart Tin Man, Aaron Fried’s Lion (inexplicably deprived of “If I Were King of the Forest”) and especially Adam Vanek’s fluid, rubber-legged Scarecrow invoke but do not slavishly copy the film’s actors.

Yet the genially idiotic Scarecrow, who never says anything worth remembering, embodies what’s unsatisfying about the script. The Wizard can only “give” characters things they already possess; he reveals strengths, rather than instilling them. If we don’t see their brains, heart and courage at work throughout the show, the main point of the movie – the thing that makes it so great – gets lost in the comic shuffle.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘The Wizard of Oz’

When: Through July 10 at 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

Tickets: $29.50-$129.50.

Running time: 145 minutes with one intermission.

Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.

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