"THE WIZARD OF OZ," through Feb. 2, Hale Centre Theatre, 9900 S. Monroe St., Sandy (801-984-9000 or hct.org); running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
SANDY — "There's no place like home," Dorothy Gale has been telling us for years, but in Hale Centre Theatre's eye-poppingly sumptuous production of "The Wizard of Oz," it was Oz — not Kansas — that Wednesday night's audience was ready to buy real estate in.
With local YouTube star Lexi Mae Walker in the role that secured Judy Garland's place in film history, HCT's "Wizard of Oz," running through Feb. 2, is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production as sets, acrobats and two witches descended from the ceiling while gorgeously arrayed cast members danced onstage with enough confetti and glitter to delight even a Vegas act.
But none of that glitz was on display as the show opened. Rather, the familiar bars of the film's score highlighted the sepia-toned opening credits displayed on the massive screens around the top of the theater, immediately telling the audience this production pays homage to the beloved 1939 movie.
Everything in the pre-Oz Kansas scenes echoed the black-and-white world before Technicolor — from the dust-colored costumes to the muted tones of Aunt Em's (Eden Benson Monday/Wednesday/Friday) and Uncle Henry's (Darren Poulsen Monday/Wednesday/Friday) farmhouse. The loveliest bit of stage magic in those opening scenes was Josh Roberts' lighting, dim as the gray clouds passed by on the screens and then bathing the stage in a warm glow as Walker sang "Oz's" most famous tune: "Over the Rainbow."
Sixteen-year-old Walker (single cast) has a lovely, mature voice for someone so young, a fact known well to her legions of YouTube followers. She did justice to Harold Arlen's iconic melody, imbuing it with the mournful air of an aggrieved girl longing to escape her commonplace life.
Walker, making her professional theater debut, was a very likeable Dorothy, with a slight Kansas drawl and plenty of wide-eyed pluck. Years of performing doubtless helped her easy stage presence, and while she didn't bring anything new to the role — a complaint I had with most of the actors — her vocal ability made up for a lack of originality.
Taking on beloved characters and stories that people already know is tricky business. It's a good guess most audience members had seen the 1939 film (probably more than once), and you could almost feel the audience ticking off the scenes as they went by: Kansas, "Over the Rainbow," Glinda. Check.
While there's a certain pleasure in anticipating familiar scenes and jokes, audiences, too, want to be surprised and even see their pop cultural sacred cows, if not slaughtered, at least tinkered with — and the show did have a few of those moments, such as the Wicked Witch of the West (Carolyn Hartvigsen Monday/Wednesday/Friday) asking, when identifying her dead sister, "Who else would wear ruby slippers with those socks?"
But it was really in the staging, set design and costumes that HCT breathed new life into "Oz." The production is a visual feast. When the tornado swept away Dorothy, her house and all the rest, they tumbled from the ceiling, twisting and turning in the air as lights, lasers and some really cool surround sound took the audience through the drama of the storm. And then there was Oz. As Walker stepped into the fantasy land, dancing, cheering and singing Munchkins greeted her in color-saturated splendor, along with Glinda the Good Witch (Eden Benson), who floated down from the sky wearing a dress so pink and sparkly you could feel the hearts of a thousand fairy princesses break with longing.
And from there, it just got better: Aerialists spun from ribbons, women swung on vine-covered swings that doubled as tree branches. There was a hot air balloon, Toto as a marionette, a pack of shimmering poppies and at one point, a green biplane zoomed above the stage while glittery bellboys danced below.
The well-known tale, based on L. Frank Baum's book, moved right along as Dorothy encountered her trusty trio of friends — the Scarecrow (Jordan Dahl Monday/Wednesday/Friday), Tinman (Preston Taylor Monday/Wednesday/Friday) and Cowardly Lion (Dustin Bolt Monday/Wednesday/Friday) — in rapid succession, along with the Wicked Witch of the West, played with relish by a wonderfully cackling Hartvigsen. Dahl, too, deserves special mention for his Scarecrow performance, which felt fresh and lively and earned the night's biggest laughs.
At two hours and 30 minutes, "Oz" is a long night for little ones — "The Jitterbug," cut from the original film, gets a number here — but there is no shortage of stage magic for children and adults to gawk at.Comment on this story
The night's message crystallized in the show's final moments. As Dorothy woke from her experience (dream?), Kansas wasn't the drab world she lived in before Oz. After seeing color, she couldn't unsee it: Her dress was blue gingham, her friends wore bright hues and most importantly, she realized Kansas and loved ones were far more beautiful than she knew — there really was no place like home for the farm girl. Which was just fine for the rest of us in the theater: We'll take HCT's Oz.
Content advisory: Apart from some strobe lights and excellent witch-cackling that might frighten young children, the HCT's "Wizard of Oz" is suitable for all ages.