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A mostly satisfying 'Wizard of Oz' at the Modell-Lyric

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

4:00 PM EDT, May 30, 2014

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If you thought that no stage adaptation could ever match, let alone, surpass the 1939 cinematic gem "The Wizard of Oz," you'd be right.

But if you thought there couldn't possibly be any point in checking out the recently fashioned version with Andrew Lloyd Webber's name attached, think again.

It turns out that this "Wizard of Oz" treatment, currently on the boards of the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, delivers a great deal of good old-fashioned entertainment, thanks to a polished and dynamic cast. It offers some high-quality production values in the process, too.

The show, which originated in Toronto and was based on the 2011 London premiere, is, above all, respectful of the source material.

This is the same durable scenario that has captivated generations with its fanciful tale of a girl, a dog and a dream. The no-place-like-home mantra still hits, well, home. And, with one exception, all of the Harold Arlen songs from the MGM classic are preserved.

Folks who want to give their DVD of the movie a rest will discover a staging that tries as hard as an old friend to be welcoming. Those seeking a way to introduce kids to the attractions of live theater will likely find that this hearty musical does the trick.

As for "Oz" purists, there is one little problem. OK, maybe not so little. Webber and lyricist Tim Rice have added a few numbers to the score, providing showcases for the Wicked Witch of the West and her goody-goody sister Glinda, as well as the professor who turns out to be a not-so-powerful wizard.

Webber's songs sound, as you might expect, like they come from one of his musicals. They bear his trademark melodic hooks and tame harmonic structures. Serviceable they may be; the equal of Arlen's songs they are not.

Spreading around music to all the principal characters is a perfectly sensible idea, but the result is that the new stuff takes up time that might be better spent on fleshing out characters and thickening the plot. The show ends up feeling padded.

It feels downright forced in the opening scene, with awkward bursts of a forgettable tune introducing an unfulfilled Dorothy and a bustling farm. Musically, the scene is a hopeless jumble (to borrow a phrase from original "Oz" lyricist E.Y. Harburg).

But, given all the good stuff this venture has going for it, you can easily suspend reservations and just follow that yellow brick road.

The trip is made all the easier by Robert Jones' scenic and costume designs, which transition delectably from sepia-toned Kansas to color-riot Oz. Some visual surprises pop up along the way, including, most memorably, a flock of droll crows.

Hugh Vanstone's lighting expertly delivers atmospheric touches at every turn. And video projections (originally by Jon Driscoll, recreated by Daniel Brodie) are used with considerable flair, though not too often to make you feel you might as well just watch the old movie instead.

The adaptation by Webber and director Jerry Sams includes cute wry bits of humor, as when the Lion tells the Wizard, "I'm a friend of Dorothy." (If you don't get that joke, just ask one of the guys who will be laughing in the audience.) Somehow, even a passing reference to Gilbert and Sullivan in the script is funny.

If you are among those who never understand why Judy Garland's Dorothy in the film said she would miss the Scarecrow most of all (when the competition for her affections included Bert Lahr's fabulous Lion?), you'll be grateful for this version's tweak of that moment.

And as for the little surprise just before the final curtain, let's just say a little poetic license never hurt anybody.

The almost all-Canadian cast is headed by Julia McLellan as Dorothy. She doesn't have quite the depth of personality to light up the place, but her portrayal rings true, and her singing is stylish. Jacquelyn Piro Donovan nearly walks off with the show as the Wicked Witch. She's got a squeal that could curdle milk, a great way of dishing out the cynicism, and vocal cords for days.

Jay Brazeau does colorful work as Professor Marvel/Wizard. Robin Evan Willis exudes plenty of sweetness as Glinda. Jamie McKnight makes a particularly amusing and endearing Scarecrow.

The ensemble moves nimbly through its paces (even in some of choreographer Arlene Philips' least inspired routines), while the small orchestra delivers the score with an energy to match the vitality onstage. And, of course, there's a cute, finely trained Toto, too.

Performances continue through Sunday.