Watching the classic movie "The Wizard of Oz" always makes you feel like you're not in Kansas anymore. The theatrical version of this immortal musical at Toby's Dinner Theatre does a pretty good job of making you feel like you're not in Columbia anymore.
This is a challenging musical to adapt for the stage. Let's start with the special effects. There is the twister that spins Dorothy's Kansas farmhouse around and then deposits it in Oz. There is the water-soaked witch who must shrink until she disappears. Add in talking trees, vertically challenged Munchkins, Dorothy's trio of needy friends, and those pesky flying monkeys and you know the wardrobe department will be working overtime.
And the challenge that goes without saying is that the local actors are following in the ruby slipper-clad, iconic performances by Judy Garland and her equally memorable fellow cast members in the movie.
Finally, consider the in-the-round staging at Toby's and it's enough to have your head spinning as much as Dorothy's house. Director David James, who also plays Hunk and his alter ego Scarecrow in this production, manages to pull all of these elements together into a smoothly flowing show. Judging from the many Munchkin-sized children in the opening-night audience, they and their parents and grandparents seemed to be thoroughly enjoying this staging.
Much of the credit goes to the design team. Set designer David A. Hopkins makes efficient use of elevated stage platforms on all four walls for uses that include the Wicked Witch's crystal ball-appointed lair and a perch for the skilled band lead by conductor Ross Scott Rawlings.
Although it's obviously important to leave the floor space open for the constantly moving performers, a few more props down there would enhance our sense of being in Oz. The ever-changing lighting design by Jimmy Engelkemier and sound design by Drew Dedrick incorporate some ingenious ideas, but that smoke-and-mirror magic would be even more effective if Oz also had more by way of actual forest and furniture.
There's only one aspect of the production design that almost completely falls flat. When Dorothy sets off on the Yellow Brick Road, it's accomplished on this small in-the-round stage by having her bathed in yellowish light as she basically walks in circles. You don't need a road map of Oz to wonder whether that will get her to her destination.
On a brighter note, the costumes by Samn Huffer are just what you'd want to see on the Scarecrow, Hickory/Tinman (David Gregory), Zeke/Cowardly Lion (David Bosley-Reynolds), Almira Gulch/Wicked Witch of the West (Tina DeSimone), Professor Marvel/Guard/The Wizard (Jeffrey Shankle), Glinda the Good Witch (Heather Marie Beck) and others.
It's especially nice to see the orange-and-black costumes for several Crows that would remind you of uniforms for the Baltimore Orioles if the baseball team were more winningly aggressive; and several apple trees cleverly conceal the actors while giving them the mobility needed for Paula Lynn's capable choreography.
The fusion of costuming, choreography and characterization is especially important in a movie-based stage musical in which we actually want the performers to look like they just stepped out of central casting. You wouldn't want the actors to add quirky personal interpretations. So, it's a compliment to say that the above-mentioned performers know how to mimic the cinematic performances. They also sing really well, including Bosley-Reynolds' confident delivery as the Cowardly Lion in "If I Only Had the Nerve" and ""King of the Forest."
One of the few performance-related quibbles would be that while DeSimone is suitably wicked as the Witch of the West, she does not look severe enough in her earlier Kansas incarnation as Miss Gulch; her words sound mean, but her face looks too sweet as Gulch.
The performance that counts the most, of course, is that of the performer cast as Dorothy Gale. It's impressive that Julia Lancione looks and sounds like what you'd hope for in this famous role. Her singing voice has the essential combination of sweetness and determination, which comes through in "Over the Rainbow" and elsewhere. She would benefit from a tad more feeling in her technically polished singing, but, hey, that's like asking somebody to be Judy Garland. For the record, this Dorothy and the real dog playing Toto get along well in this production.
"The Wizard of Oz" runs through July 1 at Toby's the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Call 410-730-8311 or go to http://www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.