“The Wizard of Oz” is a sure thing. It holds the answers to the universe, it would seem. That code is simple: Believe in your ability, love what you do and do it well.
The Buffalo Public Theatre, led by Loraine O’Donnell and Kelli Bocock-Natale, in residence at Ujima’s Theater Loft, takes on this iconic property for its premiere production. In a newly conceived adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s iconic tale – which, according to Bocock-Natale’s director’s note, came about during the rehearsal process for a more classic rendition – the company does its very best to adhere to these tenets. Unfortunately, their efforts aren’t fruitful.
It’s a far cry from their one-night reading of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” presented in October as a fundraiser for the in-utero company. In that presentation, Wilder’s impressionistic story of mortality and place received a remarkable touch of clarity. It was a staged reading – not a far cry from what the script calls for anyway – and treated this text with great reverence. “The Wizard of Oz,” it is not, but certainly that approach suggested the notion that well-loved, well-written works need little intervention.
It’s difficult to say what Bocock-Natale had up her sleeves for the presumably classical treatment her previous vision might have been. In the past, she’s pulled creative explosions out of little hats. At the New Phoenix two years ago, a meta-like framework enabled the cast to make pretend with a proverbial chest of tricks. The announcement of her take on “Oz” suggested, perhaps unfairly, a like-minded approach, full of wonder, joy and youthful abandon.
Her vision here is quite different, unsuccessfully. It’s at times intimate, and at others overcompensating. There’s a fight between convention and modernity, spoof and sentiment. It’s as if to say, Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion are so universal, so like us, they might as well be us, dress like us, sound like us.
In place of Harold Arlen’s songs, characters take on modern pop songs, taking us farther and farther away from these faraway friends (even if, thematically, they work in characterization). Makeshift costumes suggest a desire to be homespun, D.I.Y. inventive, but they tend to lack precision. Glinda is shlubbily wrapped in bubble wrap, audibly portraying her poppy personality, but it’s not pretty; Glinda is a pretty witch. The Wicked Witch’s punkish outfit is quite ideal, as is O’Donnell’s raucous portrayal of her. Props are distracting when not somehow clever. Sometimes they just look cheap.
These accents tend to be funny at first crack, and in the case of the music, in adherence to character motivation and pathos. But more often they feel disposable, meant for a gag and not for narrative progress. Even in a story we know inside and out, we want to be led, not dragged, to a resolution.
This isn’t to say that “Oz,” or “Our Town” or even “Peter Pan,” which Bocock-Natale directed in 2011, must remain embalmed in our memories. But with material so airtight, it feels subtractive to add so much to it. Dorothy’s exploration takes place in a dream, where anything, but certainly not everything, can happen. Reinvent the storytelling, make magic out of thin air, but protect the story.
Our ensemble does good work in light of their actions, even owning it in temporary states of confusion.
You can’t ask for a better trio than Brian Riggs, Bobby Cooke and Eric Rawski as Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. Riggs shows off a sincerely astute physicality; Cooke radiates with his inherent romantic glow; and Rawski sinks his claws into every bit of dramatic tension, deflection and obsession. You’d be lucky to be lost with these guys.
Cecelia Barron is a more naïve Dorothy than perhaps we’re used to; she seems too quick to follow any invitation, rather than even quietly curious or defensive along the way. Barron is sweet and with that big, bright smile, earns her worthiness in front of the great Wizard, just the same. Dudney Joseph, in a narrator’s role that isn’t at all necessary but that adds nice communal support on this strange trip, is wonderfully tempered.
Shantina Moore, as our Wizard, is most electrifying. Suitably diminutive in stature, as many wizards are, and profound in voice, she brings it all home with great reverence to her visitors’ plight.