AGAINST ALL ODDS, and for no discernible reason, there's a spectacularly good Wizard of Oz at Dunster House. It's obviously a labor of love on the part of a lot of people; more theatrical ingenuity and musical panache than most of this year's desperately gauzy Broadway revivals. Everyone knew from the start that The Wizard of Oz couldn't be put back on the stage in toto, so they didn't try to out-Hollywood Hollywood in the cloying way that's made so many recent Harvard musicals hopelessly wan and disappointing.
The Dunster Wizard of Oz works on the principle that everyone is familiar with the famous movie of the same name and tries to suggest things from the film, not reproduce them. Of course, things are added as well as suggested, or else there'd be no reason not to just set up a screen and show the film on it. There's the enthusiasm and freshness of the cast, for instance, to replace the sometimes frigid tinsel of the movie, and most of all, fresh music. Music director David Garlock, working with half a dozen orchestrators and a fine 21-member orchestra, has shined up the original score with some fairly sophisticated arrangements that owe more to modern classical music than to Hollywood. But these changes are never pretentious and the orchestra can rip into genuine schmaltz when it's called for.
The movie's special effects can't be duplicated on stage, but they are skillfully replaced by a barrage of techniques including microphones, film projection, and smoke bombs. Director Larry Artenian has managed to pull off old tricks in new ways--for example, a strobe light chase scene in the castle of the Wicked Witch--almost steals the show. But if the special effects are original, the actors' costumes and accents aim to be just like the movie. The Tin Man is perfect down to the silver paint on his eyelids, and if the winged monkeys look a little like bellhops, well, they did in the movie too.
There were some very strong voices in the cast and at their best they not only sung well but captured the familiar inflections of the original cast. Dorothy (Karen Preston), the Tin Man (Scott Miles), the Scarecrow (A1 Abrams), and the Cowardly Lion (Paul Hewitt) all played double parts--Miles played Jack Haley playing the Tin Man, Preston played Garland playing Dorothy, and so on. The Wicked Witch (Gwen Mason) and the Gatekeeper of the Emerald City (Andy Sutter) splendidly overplayed in the grand tradition. Toto was something of a problem; he was necessary at certain points in the plot, but the decision to have the Secretary-Treasurer of the Dunster House Drama Society go down on all fours is not completely right. He tends to steal scenes at the beginning and this is the only thing that ever makes the play seem like children's theatre. Sometimes you wish Miss Gulch had destroyed him after all.
I DON'T THINK any red-blooded American could honestly say whether The Wizard of Oz is a good movie, since everyone sees it before he thinks of things in those terms. My primary impression of it as a child was fear--I was scared by Miss Gulch, scared by the twister, scared by the monkeys. I was probably scared by the munchkins too, since all I remember is being afraid. None of the happy moments of the film made any impression on me. And later this put me on the track of deeper meanings. If I knew anything about psychology, or folklore and mythology, I suppose I could talk about quests and crones and wish-fulfillment and why little girls love their dogs. A couple of years ago, someone came up with a much better explanation--The Wizard of Oz, he proved, was actually the best musical to come out of the Free Silver movement of the late nineteenth century.
Frank Baum was a populist who tried to get his views across in many less oblique media than children's stories but failed until he wrote Oz. Adaptations usually make changes that obscure his intentions--Dorothy's slippers were silver, not ruby, in the book. The Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan, who never went far enough, for Baum, towards removing the farmer from his "cross of gold." The Wicked Witch of the West, then as now, is the Republican party. And the Wizard of Oz is none other than Grover Cleveland, who promised free silver and then told his supporters to wait. The details can be filled in cleverly enough to almost convince you Paul is dead. It's too bad the Dunster House Drama Society didn't stage a revisionist Wizard of Oz that would have brought out these original meanings explicitly, but the show's too much fun as it is to hold it against them.