BEVERLY — Transferring a beloved film to the stage can be daunting, but the North Shore Music Theatre’s production of “The Wizard of Oz” delivers an enchanting balance of familiar scenes with some surprisingly dramatic moments. For the kids in the audience, Dorothy Gale’s adventure and her run-ins with the Wicked Witch of the West are as terrifying as in the film, perhaps more so, since the action happens all around us.
Director and choreographer Joel Ferrell alludes to the movie without ever letting it bog him down. While the arena stage makes the story’s reference to “the man behind the curtain” a little tricky, Ferrell’s staging is wonderfully creative. Using the central elevator to great effect, he redirects the audience’s attention so that scene changes happen with hardly a pause in the action.
Ferrell wisely casts NSMT favorite David Coffee (longtime star of the theater’s production of “A Christmas Carol”) in the scene-stealing role of Professor Marvel-Gatekeeper-Wizard. Coffee delivers a performance that is full of nods to the 1939 film while also being distinctly his own.
Emerson College junior Danielle Bowen makes a striking Dorothy, with a clear, unadorned voice for “Over the Rainbow” and unpretentious approach to the girl from Kansas that makes her believable and sympathetic. Her faithful companion Toto is played by the incredibly well-trained dog Nigel, who graciously avoids completely upstaging his human costars.
Bowen also gets strong support from her three cohorts who join her quest along the Yellow Brick Road: the loose-limbed Scarecrow (Paul Sabala), the gentle Tinman (Joe Moeller), and the neurotic Cowardly Lion (Lance Roberts). In an unexpected touch, the Scarecrow gets some gorgeous accompaniment on “If I Only Had a Brain” from three Crows, who offer tight harmonies and some playful jibes at his inability to frighten them. Also, for the Tinman’s “If I Only Had a Heart,” three Apple Trees provide harmonic backup, rooting the music in the era when it was written.
Ferrell also casts a wonderful group of children as the Munchkins, and their wide-eyed enthusiasm is matched by their precise performances. In scenes in both Munchkinland and Oz, Ferrell’s dance combinations use every inch of the circular stage to great effect, creating the impression of space and specific locations, particularly in the Emerald City.
Music director William Stanley leads the 11-member orchestra through Harold Arlen’s lush score, providing emotional emphasis without overwhelming the actors.
The NSMT may not have a curtain for the wizard to hide behind, but the production does have some impressive flying sequences. My companion, Samadhi Simmons, 7, of Waltham, who had never seen the film, warned me early on that “the witch is coming back. I know it,” and gasped every time Glinda floated in, or the Wicked Witch swooped across the stage on her broomstick.
This production’s high- and low-tech elements make it easy for Samadhi — and children of every age — to lose themselves in the world of L. Frank Baum for a little while, only to be reminded in the end that “there’s no place like home.”