The heartfelt sincerity of “The Wizard of Oz’’ - the story, the iconic characters, and Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s sumptuous music - makes this fable feel fresh no matter how many times we have seen it. The Wheelock Family Theatre’s current production improves on the basics by assembling an impressive cast of both children and professionals (including three Broadway veterans) to populate this magical world of munchkins, Winkies, and flying monkeys. Director James P. Byrne (no relation to this writer) and his production team rise to the challenge to be true to the beloved classic film without encouraging too many comparisons.
As Dorothy, Katherine Leigh Doherty is comfortable and confident, singing “Over the Rainbow’’ without embellishment. Her sincere approach to the role encourages the audience to sympathize with her and let go of preconceived notions based on the audience’s familiarity with the film.
Doherty gets some charming support from the rubber-limbed Ricardo Engermann as the Scarecrow (watch for his impressive gymnastic moves), Shelley Bolman’s sensitive Tin Woodman, and Timothy John Smith’s gloriously voiced Cowardly Lion. All four friends are nearly upstaged though, by Toto, played by second-grader Sofia Pilar Villafane with just the right amount of spunk and enthusiasm. Although she is adorable, and just the right size to be picked up by the Commander of the flying monkeys and by the Cowardly Lion, she never overdoes it, punctuating songs with little barks, while understanding her role as loyal friend.
As Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West, Jane Staab goes for a big, broad performance that is more amusing than frightening, an appropriate choice here. Even when she acts out squashing the “irritating bugs’’ that are Dorothy and her friends, her cackle is delicious rather than horrifying. John Davin, meanwhile is a delightfully eccentric Professor Marvel and Wizard of Oz.
Choreographer Laurel Conrad and costume designer Melissa Miller create a lovely moment when dancers, dressed as poppies, bend and twist as they put Dorothy, Toto, and the Cowardly Lion to sleep. Conrad also knows how to move a large cast gracefully, and has a lot of fun with the big production number “Jitterbug’’ (a song cut from the film, but restored for the musical version).
Dalice Rodriguez, 8, who was there with her brother Johann, 5, tapped along to the beat of “Jitterbug’’ and later said the dancing in that number was her favorite. Toto, however, was her favorite character, while Johann preferred the Tin Woodman, not because of his sensitive soul, or his dancing, but because “he had an ax.’’
Like most of the audience, who occasionally sang along with the characters and the seven-piece orchestra, the Rodriguezes had seen the film, which makes “The Wizard of Oz’’ the perfect introduction to the theater, since children may be familiar with the story but delighted to be surprised by a live performance.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.