- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cupcakes, costumes and contests, oh my! Such was the fanfare that greeted patrons at Tuesday’s opening-night performance of “The Wizard of Oz” at the Warner Theatre.

The festivities in the lobby may have kept spirits and sugar levels high for a time. Ultimately, though, they couldn’t dissolve the burdensome question hanging over the evening: How would this show stack up to the classic MGM movie Americans have loved for generations?

Judy Garland’s ruby slippers, after all, aren’t easy to fill.

This touring production (onstage at the Warner through Sunday) is based on John Kane’s 1987 adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company and hews closely to the iconic film’s script. Except for a few novelties — ranging from dancing human poppies to “Karate Kid” moves intended for laughs - its characters, settings, songs and plot twists are largely familiar.

On Tuesday, some of the similarities, surprisingly, worked to the show’s advantage. For starters, it was difficult to imagine how the crew might re-create that infamous twister that whisks Dorothy and Toto away to Oz, but sure enough, innovative and impressive special effects created the stir. Also, the real, live Toto look-alike (pooches named Snickers and Princess share the role) gave that character special appeal onstage — a delight for the children in the audience.



Still, at times, the show fell flat against its cinematic counterpart. Local youngsters chosen to bolster the Munchkin and Winkie ranks were adorable but couldn’t muster the necessary oomph. (Who can blame them? It was late on a school night!) Similarly, leading lady Cassie Okenka (recently seen on MTV’s “Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for Elle Woods”) leapt into her role with gusto, but her internal enthusiasm occasionally turned into an external squeal that wasn’t always easy on the ears - in short, too much cute and not enough of Miss Garland’s cool.

The better performances of the night were those by Noah Aberlin — who mastered the unsteady gait of the skeletonless Scarecrow - and Jason Simon, who turned his Lion into someone you just wanted to hug. Director Nigel West clearly gave his cast the nearly impossible task of replicating the portrayals made famous by their movie predecessors (Tony-winning funnyman Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion and the nimble Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow) and Mr. Aberlin and Mr. Simon rose to the occasion.

Dance sequences choreographed by Leigh Constantine were a fun added bonus — especially a romp in the Emerald City to the tune of “Merry Old Land of Oz,” and a “Jitterbug” invasion in the Haunted Forest (a number that actually was cut from the MGM film).

All told, Dorothy and company delivered some pleasant family fare, but this “Wizard” just wasn’t as great and powerful as the one we’ve admired for so many years.

RATING: ***

WHAT: “The Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum, adapted by John Kane

WHERE: Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday;. 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Through Sunday.

TICKETS: $40 to $80

PHONE: 202/783-4000

WEB SITE: warnertheatre.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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