People all over the world are obsessed with “The Wizard of Oz." But there is no place in the world where it has as much cultural value as in Kansas, where "Somewhere over the Rainbow" can be considered as much the state song as "Home on the Range."
“It's become synonymous with ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” says Mark Edelman, head of Theater League, which produced this latest version of the iconic story that opened Wednesday at Providence Amphitheater (formerly known as Sandstone) in Bonner Springs, Kansas.
"Everywhere I go in the country, when I tell people I'm from Kansas, they say, ‘How's Dorothy?' or ‘Say hi to Toto for me,’ or ‘Well, you're not in Kansas anymore.’ It's a very, very well known brand," he says.
The conflation of Kansas and Oz is a curious connection, since neither L. Frank Baum’s original 1900 novel nor the 1939 MGM movie paint a very desirable image. Baum writes, "When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on either side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions."
It's hard to imagine anyone doesn’t know the plot, but just in case: A young girl, Dorothy, and her little dog, Toto, live on the dreary prairie. They are swept up in a cyclone and deposited in the magical Land of Oz. Adventures ensue, friends are met, enemies vanquished, victory triumphed, but ultimately, despite the ritz and the glamour, Dorothy longs for one thing: to return home, return to Kansas, family and farm.
This is the first theater production at Providence Amphitheater and the first professional musical theater performance of any kind in Wyandotte County for as far back as Edelman can recall.
It is also the first production in the world to use stills from the movie as the primary scenic elements for the live stage production, displayed on a 40-foot by 20-foot LED screen, some of the latest technology to hit Broadway stages.
“These LED walls are becoming more a part of the toolbox of scenic artists,” says Edelman.
He contacted Warner Bros. to license the musical rights, also securing the rights to the film stills and brief animation sequences with a multi-year agreement.
"We'll actually capture that in a way that a lot of productions don't," he says.
This merger of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s famous tunes, the quotable script and recognizable imagery have made for a faithful rendition of the popular story, directed by Michael Grayman-Parkhurst and choreographed by Andrew Grayman-Parkhurst.
The endearing cast is led by Chelcie Abercrombie as Dorothy Gale, who on opening night was well-suited for the role with a charming, wide-eyed manner, clear, strong voice and easy cradling a shockingly chill pup named Prudence, as Toto.
It’s a difficult task to embody and enhance such a well-known set of characters, but the trio of comic actors playing Dorothy’s companions pulled it off, with Jordan Fox as the goofy, loose- limbed Scarecrow and Brian McKinley as the tearful Tin Man. Robert Hingula elicited chuckles and cheers as the Cowardly Lion, especially during his “King of the Forrrest” rendition.
Dick Wilson played the old humbug Wizard with aplomb, and though Devon Barnes’ Miss Gulch isn’t as terrifying as the movie makes her, Barnes nailed the Wicked Witch’s cackle and screeching death throes.
A large cast of children serves as Munchkins and Flying Monkeys, with a proficient ensemble of adult players filling out a multitude of roles. Some of the children are from Variety KC, a program that supports developmentally disabled children, and a portion of proceeds from Friday’s show will go to support that organization.
The LED wall component lent familiarity and authenticity to the production, but a clearly visible backstage door diluted the mystery and magic. And the mostly barren stage relied, like the Wizard himself, somewhat too heavily on fog and lights.
Still, the first performance was well received by approximately 2,700 people. Several people in the multigenerational audience came decked in their finest Dorothy outfits, with a few scattered Glindas, too.
Next door to the amphitheater, the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame hosts an Oz-themed weekend, with family-friendly daytime activities such as a petting zoo, mini-train rides, a special exhibit of Oz memorabilia, a puppet show version of "The Wizard of Oz" by Mesner Puppet Theater, and a recreated Kansas farm from circa 1900. There's even a witch cackling contest.
Edelman says the Village West area, with the amphitheater, Ag Hall, Kansas Speedway, Sporting KC, Kansas City T-Bones and Legends Outlet, is "the biggest tourist attraction in the state of Kansas." He says he hopes that this production of "The Wizard of Oz" can add another draw, becoming an annual event, like Branson’s outdoor drama “Shepherd of the Hills” (which has been performed nearly every summer since the 1960s) that “local and regional, and even national and international audiences could look forward to, count on every year,” he says.
"It was the idea,” he says, “of creating something that can be lasting."
The Wizard of Oz, through August 4 at Providence Medical Center Amphitheater, 633 N. 130th St. Bonner Springs, Kansas 66012; tickets at 1-800-745-3000.