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A Tale of Two Musicals

"The Wizard of Oz"

The Music Man
Musical Theatre West
Richard and Karen Carpenter
Performing Arts Center

6200 Atherton St., Long Beach
Through March 2
Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.
Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.
Sunday at 2 p.m.
562.856.1999 Ext. 4 :: musical.org

There was trouble in River City and in the Wonderful World of Oz this month: Just cross the county line to Long Beach for Musical Theatre West’s Carpenter Center and visit Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center for the Arts for two classic musicals – one, a regionally-produced masterpiece and the latter, a renowned North American tour.

The Music Man, written in 1957, is author Meredith Wilson’s love letter to his home state of Iowa, set in the provincial slow-paced town of River City in 1912. It is the story of a fast-talking confidence man posing as a traveling band conductor who fleeces small-town Americans out of their hard-earned money, selling them false promises of putting together a “boy’s band” with instruments and flashy new band uniforms. His name is Professor Harold Hill, and he is played by veteran actor Davis Gaines. What develops is a charming story of a town brought to life and a blossoming romance between the ingratiating grifter and the town librarian, Marian Paroo, played beautifully by Gail Bennett.

I am certain many of you, as I did, grew up with the 1962 film, starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones in these respective roles, and are familiar with many of the songs in this show, but there is nothing like seeing a well-executed, live performance of these classics, as is the case at the Carpenter Center. From the opening number “Rock Island,” brilliantly directed by Jeff Maynard and choreographed by John Todd, you know you are in for a top-notch production.

I have seen several mountings of this show, as it is a favorite for high schools and community theaters, but MTW’s production is at a whole new level, honoring this Tony award-winning show with tight direction, choreography and solid casting. And although the leading man (Gaines) is quite a bit older than the ingénue (Bennett), it did not seem to bother the audience, who may have chosen to suspend reality and buy into the romance between the two, even though the lead is significantly older.

Robert Preston was 39 when he originated the role on Broadway and 44 in the film, so it did not seem too much of a stretch for Gaines to play the role. (FYI: Broadway’s Barbara Cook was 30 when she played Marian, while Shirley Jones, who took the role in the film, was only 23.) I found Gaines (an MTW favorite) to sing and dance and act a lot like Harold Hill a la Robert Preston, but with a hell of a singing voice… no ageism here – he was marvelous as Hill, and I give him credit for performing with the vitality of a much younger man, even with a shoulder injury, which was worked into the script and costuming beautifully.

With a large cast of defined characters and strong ensemble cast, the stage is full with 47 men, women and children. MTW does a wonderful job casting, with terrific performances by Cathy Newman as Mrs. Paroo, Matt Walker as Marcellus Washburn, Joey D’Auria as Mayor Shin, Rebecca Spencer as Mrs. Shinn, Christian Villanueva as Tommy Djilas, Ashley Anderson as Zaneeta Shin. Kevin Ciardelli makes is MTW debut as the adorable lisping Winthrop Paroo while Maggie Balleweg debuts as Amaryllis. An ensemble too many to list skillfully supports this feel-good slice of Americana show.

Closer to home, The Wizard was in town, with the familiar cast of characters: a couple of witches, a scarecrow, a tin man, a lion, and of course, Dorothy and her little dog, Toto. Another American classic with a long history, The Wizard of Oz was dusted off and revamped by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams, offering some significant and subtle changes, some good, some not so necessary, but entertaining nonetheless.

Based on the 1900 novel by L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz was adapted into a musical by Baum himself, and has been around since 1902, gaining classic status after the success of the iconic 1939 film starring Judy Garland as the young Dorothy Gale. This is Webber’s 18th musical and marks a reunion with lyricist Tim Rice. After three decades, the two got together to rework the screenplay, and add new songs to enhance the original score. Both Rice and Webber felt there were holes in the story, and wanted to fill them with songs that featured some characters who never got their solo.

I have to admit: This is a show I know very well, having been involved with an equity regional production of The Wizard of Oz with 3D Theatricals in 2011, so I was very interested to see what all the buzz was about, and whether this Oz purist was going to take to all these changes. I was happy they did not mess with the plot, instead adding some contemporary twists, some topical banter and an updated look and sensibility that really worked. From the first musical number, added by Webber, “Nobody Understands Me,” sung by Dorothy, you get the setup that she is a teenage girl, with a little Midwestern angst and this is a great song to lead the audience up to Dorothy’s ultimate adventure down the yellow brick road. Webber’s Dorothy, performed by Danielle Wade, seems wiser and wispier than Garland’s portrayal, her singing voice strong and gorgeous, notably during the signature tune, “Over the Rainbow.”

Another noteworthy difference is the take on the Wicked Witch, portrayed humorously by Jacquelyn Piro Donovan. I found her character to be a cross between Witchy Poo a la Kathy Najimy a la Madame (of Wayland Flowers and Madame). She is sassy and contemporary, sans the black, pointy hat and is awarded her own solo in another Webber/Rice tune, “Red Shoe Blues.” Some of the best bits feature the witch, up in the terrace of the Segerstrom Center, pointing her broom at unsuspecting audience members.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s collaboration with fellow British director Sams and scenic and costume designer Robert Jones offers a new look and feel to the show, from a more tonal palette in the costuming to a more contemporary set more akin to Wicked and the special effects are top-notch twisters and flying monkeys and the impressive gothic castle of the Wicked Witch. And, it was nice to see Nigel again, the well-trained cairn terrier who I got to know during my other visit to Oz. He gets around!

Musical Theatre West is a nationally-respected regional theater group who calls Cal State Long Beach’s Karen and Richard Carpenter Performing Arts Center its home base. In the lobby, you can check out Karen’s drum kit, costumes and a tasteful collection of memorabilia from the singing siblings. MTW has a very loyal following and the center has great sight lines and acoustics for a theater of 1,074 seats. Parking is plentiful and is only $5.

If you have the opportunity and want to see a nostalgic, feel-good show, you have the chance to do so through Sunday, March 2. I guarantee that you will leave smiling and humming a tune, rain or shine.

And although the witch has left the building, Segerstrom Hall has an amazing season still to come and we in the OC have shows to look forward to. The state-of-the-art 3,000-seat venue will be hosting Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel in March with I Love Lucy Live On Stage (March 18-23) and the pop classic Mama Mia in April.

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