Mirvish's The Wizard of Oz Struggles to Live Up to the Original
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Mirvish’s The Wizard of Oz Struggles to Live Up to the Original

An adaption of the 1939 film is another example of the tricky relationship between the theatre and the silver screen.

It's tough to replicate Dorothy's movie entrance into Munchkinland, and unfair to compare. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The Wizard of Oz
Ed Mirvish Theatre (244 Victoria Street)
To March 31
7:30 p.m., Wednesday and weekend matinees at 1:30 p.m.
$35 to $130

The bridge between musicals and movies is less like a brick road and more like a two-lane highway.

This past October, Mirvish Productions brought the musical Sister Act to Toronto, based on Whoopi Goldberg’s 1992 film. Also originally included in the company’s 2012/2013 season were stage versions of Honeymoon in Vegas and Flashdance (both were postponed). The 48-week-long hit War Horse was a play first, but it benefited from the additional boost of buzz from the Oscar-nominated film. Meanwhile, news leaked this week that Toronto will see the world premiere of the stage version of the Disney classic Aladdin. And only a few days before that, it was more or less confirmed that the legendary musical Les Miserables will return to Toronto this fall, while Tom Hooper and the rest of the cast and crew of the 2012 film (based on the musical) continue counting over $100 million from the box office.

Packing a season with well-known cinematic titles seems to be Mirvish’s favourite way of ensuring that its subscribers stick around. Perhaps it also helps the company offset riskier productions, like Theatre 20’s Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare. But capitalizing on the notoriety of movies is not all sunshine and rainbows. Such audience-enticing tie-ins come with expectations: viewers have seen the show before, and they have preconceived notions of what it should be like. Even so, a story told on the stage and a story told on the big screen are two different things. And an easy way to do one or the other a disservice is to attempt a direct translation.

And that’s part of the problem with The Wizard of Oz, currently on stage at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.

The updated rendition of the 1939 film, featuring new music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, falls into the same trap as 1988’s Carrie—now considered to be the biggest Broadway flop ever, in part because of its awkwardly literal approach to its cinematic source material. (A 2012 Carrie remount that interpreted the 1976 film version a little more loosely earned better reviews.)

Like that earlier musical, The Wizard of Oz is essentially a live version of the film, rather than a stage adaptation. While the tone and style of the movie is a perfect match for the theatre, the logistics of a story that travels from Kansas to The Emerald City are not. Director Jeremy Sams tries to cover this up with poorly-made CGI-projection segments that hurl Dorothy’s home through a tornado and into outer space. Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the East dangle forlornly from the flies. It all builds to an unsatisfying climax where an empty bucket comes out of nowhere to supply an excuse for melting the witch. The sets, costumes, and special effects are ambitious, but they’re disappointing in their attempts to keep up with the movie.

Even the star of the show, Danielle Wade, has her own on-screen persona to live up to, as the winner of the CBC talent search show Over the Rainbow. (In her defense, she kills the show’s namesake song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”)

The advantage that theatre has over film (the whole live performance part) should be the real draw for the audience—the reason to dress up and leave the house instead of streaming the original online at home. But somehow, despite adequate performances from Wade and her companions, Mike Jackson (Tin Man), Lee MacDougall (Lion), and Jamie McKnight (Scarecrow), they aren’t the most memorable aspects of the production. Lisa Horner is a great Wicked Witch, but we were still distracted by her awkward flying monkeys.

Theatre has a type of unpredictability that distinguishes it from the screen. The Wizard of Oz capitalizes on that, a little. The show’s most valuable assets are also its cheesiest: the trio of pint-sized pups—Tilley, Neddy, and Winny—who rotate scenes in the show to play Dorothy’s BFF, Toto. Every choreographed trot the dogs take on or offstage is clearly designed to make the audience “ooh” and “awww.” Even so, the sheer presence of uncontrollable animals added a much-needed element of danger. For us, those three canine cuties stole the show.

There’s no end in sight for the movie-to-musical trend: Mean Girls, Pan’s Labyrinth, and American Psycho all have musical versions in the works. What we can hope is that the upcoming Aladdin will live up to the promise that it won’t be a rehash of the film, and that Mirvish’s audiences at Les Mis won’t be upset when they can’t see Fantine’s tonsils as she sings “I Dreamed a Dream.”

CORRECTION: January 29, 4:25PM Previously, the article referred to Eponine’s tonsils while singing “I Dreamed a Dream,” when really, we meant Fantine. The correction has been made above.