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A fresh and fun new journey to ‘Oz’

Given what you might know about theater impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber’s gargantuan budgets and blockbuster receipts, you might understand the hesitancy felt by some, including this theatergoer, to news in 2011 of his new “The Wizard of Oz.”

The hypercolorized London (and later, North American) productions would cast their Dorothys via a reality show. It would recycle Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s famous songs from the classic 1939 film, and add new material by Webber, lyricist Tim Rice and book writer Jeremy Sams.

It would be a homecoming, if your home added seven bedrooms, four baths and an indoor Jacuzzi.

The result, I’m shocked and delighted to say, is fresh, bright, fun, and above all else, respectfully done. You can go home again, and you can redecorate it, too.

The North American tour’s six-day run at Shea’s Performing Arts Center continues through April 10. It is a non-Equity tour, unlike most touring Broadway shows that play Shea’s. Traditionally, if somewhat unfairly, this distinction usually implies a cast with limited professional experience, or a production with lower design standards. Neither prejudice is with merit this time around.

Sams directs a stellar cast of breakout performers, many of whom are recent college graduates. Their energy for Sam’s fluid staging and Arlene Philips’s athletic choreography is boundless. Execution is precise, faces are animated, words are enunciated and the story is well told. These are qualities seasoned Equity companies don’t always possess in such unison. There are a number of solid performances here, with only a few bad seeds.

Shani Hadjian’s realistic take on the Wicked Witch of the West is underwhelming. Her green goblin is barely intimidating enough, barely as wicked as her sinister title would indicate. Hadjian was more menacing as the Gale family’s bike-riding neighbor, Miss Gulch, than she is as her supplanted dream version. She doesn’t keep up with the production’s clearly defined camp approach.

That’s opposed to Aaron Fried’s fabulous turn as the cowardly Lion, who gets an all-but-Bedazzled makeover as a half-closeted cub. That he’s too terrified to hear his own roar in the Haunted Forest, but open enough to drop a handful of insider theater references as thinly veiled coming-out statements, adds a most unexpected complexity.

Lion effectively coming out during Dorothy’s fabled journey home is one of the sweetest love letters to this iconic tale I’ve seen. “I’m a friend of Dorothy’s,” he proclaims with beaming pride and a knowing nod to the similarly named advocacy group. Fried is a riot and a sweetheart at every turn, and a crowd pleaser.

His two friends have been recycled, too; Jay McGill plays Tin Man as a jockish Marine cadet, and Morgan Reynolds plays Scarecrow as a floppy Pinocchio-type (reinforced by Robert Jones’s costume design). Their Kansas counterparts — farmhands Hunk, Hickory and Zeke — are just as pigeonholed, played as costumed craft-beer brewers.

Presuming this characterization was tacked on for youth appeal, it also screams of Webber’s hip-dad marketing impulses. To their credit, McGill and Reynolds go full steam with their roles, grounding these silly tactics with plenty of heart and soul.

Sarah Lasko offers a Dorothy for the Millennial age, riddled with anxiety, guilty with self-interest, and redeeming with just enough compassion to not be branded a brat. In her national tour debut, Lasko gives a fully committed performance, singing and moving as someone her age ought to.

The production has a lot to live up to, especially given the global success of 2003 prequel “Wicked,” a show that re-imagined “Oz” for orthodox fans and defined it for generations of their offspring. Jones, in his loud designs, has gone to specific length to avoid comparisons, such as costuming Munchkins in an all-blue, sans green palette, and playing down Glinda’s sparkly tiara.

As Dorothy’s journey reminds us, a house is not its décor but its foundation. Still, a new coat of paint goes a long way.


“The Wizard of Oz”

3 stars (out of four)

When: Through April 10, with shows at 7:30 p.m. April 6 and 7; 8 p.m. April 8; 2 and 8 p.m. April 9; and 2 and 7 p.m. April 10.

Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.

Tickets: $30 to $75


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