by MIKE CHAIKEN
Remaking a piece of verbal art word for word of the original is a tricky thing rife with obstacles.
In 1998, director Gus Van Sant remade the suspense film “Psycho,” hewing exactly to the original Alfred Hitchcock script, even recreating the original shot for shot.
Audiences and critics weren’t kind.
Other than the opportunity to use newer actors and produce the film in color, Van Sant’s creation begged the question: What’s the point?
Beloved movies have been retooled for the stage as well with the film scripts essentially photocopied with the direction being tweaked a bit to make allowances for the restrictions of live performance compared to the magic of film. “It’s A Wonderful Life,” for instance, has found a second life on community theater stages around Christmas time. But again, other than offering audiences a chance to experience a holiday ritual, the question is still, “What’s the point?”
So the creative team behind the stage performance of “The Wizard of Oz,” which arrived in Hartford’s Bushnell Theater this weekend, were pretty ballsy by offering a Xerox copy of the beloved 1939 film. Forget the script itself, which is firmly engraved in the minds of audiences young and old, the stage show had to overcome thoughts of iconic cinematic performances by Judy Garland (Dorothy), Ray Bolger (Scarecrow), Jack Haley (Tin Man), Bert Lahr (Lion), Frank Morgan (Wizard), Billie Burke (Good Witch) and Margaret Hamilton (Wicked Witch).
Given the hurdles this touring production faced in making us forget the original, it truly was a delight and great fun.
The show smartly did not try to make us forget the original. It clearly was respectful to its beloved predecessor in how it approached the direction of the characters. And the actors clearly all had fun reliving a film that probably enriched their childhood.
And the performances of the actors in this touring show were key to its success. There was an energy and joy as they got to relive the film for themselves.
Kalie Kaimann was lovely as Dorothy Gale. It was clear Judy Garland was on her mind as she portrayed this innocent girl. But she skirted around the opportunity to mimic and caricaturize the screen legend. Kaimann was also blessed with a fabulous voice that was effortless and clear, especially as she tackled the classic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” that provided her with a presence all of her own.
University of Hartford alum Emily Perzan was fabulous as the Wicked Witch. Her portrayal worked because she wasn’t afraid to go over the top. But she was smartly reined in so she wouldn’t overshadow the rest of the cast.
Ashleigh Thompson as the Good Witch tapped into a little bit of 1939 overacting as was the trademark of the original Billie Burke. But Thompson also slipped in a little bit of the approach of Kristen Chenoweth in that modern take on Oz, “Wicked.”
Victor Legarreta was hilarious as the Lion… full of comically false bravado and cowardly quivering. Again, he made no attempt to distance himself from the original portrayal by comic legend Bert Lahr. But his tribute succeeded due to the loving energy he injected into the character.
Christopher Russell as Tin Man and Chris Duir as Scarecrow also were mighty fine as members of the Yellow Brick Road quartet.
For fans worried that their favorite music would be absent from this show, no worries. Lizzie Webb conducted all of the classics with great aplomb. The show even brought back “Jitter Bug,” a song which was trimmed from the original film. It was a fun musica. moment with energetic choreography.
We also appreciated there was no post-modern rethinking of the story (other than the costume design nod to “Wicked” when we entered the Emerald City). There was no psychological subtext injected offering us motivation.
Instead this production of “Wizard of Oz” was all about presenting the story in a way that made the audience- young and old—smile.
I give this production 3 out of 4 stars.
Performances of “The Wizard of Oz” are today, Saturday, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 630 p.m. For tickets, go to bushnell.org.