With a cast of more than 50 singers, dancers and actors, "The Wizard of Oz," currently playing at the Encore Dinner Theater in Ventura, is an ambitious production. More important to the audience, though, it's a highly entertaining show--as the song goes, a whiz of a "Wiz."
The stage production is an adaptation, by Frank Gabrielson, of the 1939 MGM film. All of the movie's most popular songs are included, though some characters are eliminated and the plot is changed somewhat to facilitate staging.
Thus, we meet Dorothy, Uncle Henry, Aunt Em, various witches, the trio of Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion, and the Wizard himself. But the flying monkeys we remember as henchmen to the Wicked Witch of the West have become "Spirits," and Dorothy seems to have misplaced her little dog, Toto.
On the other hand, this production has plenty of Munchkins, those tiny citizens of Oz portrayed by little people in the film and by a whole passel of youngsters on the Encore stage. And there's a henchman for the Wicked Witch of the West who resembles Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster. The Sprits dance to Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette," a melody more closely identified with Alfred Hitchcock than with Oz.
Prepared for those practically negligible differences, it's easy to enjoy this "Wizard" on its own terms. Director Gary Bruce Sayles and choreographer Aron Mandelbaum don't just manage to keep everybody onstage from constantly bumping into one another (an accomplishment in its own right), they give the characters interesting things to do, ranging from rather complicated dances to a fine piece of slapstick in which the evil spirits almost successfully divert Dorothy and her friends from the road to Oz.
Shani Harriott is a talented Dorothy, winning hearts early on with her a cappella rendition of the verse to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (prerecorded backing tracks come in for the chorus and most of the rest of the songs).
The trio of fellow travelers play their parts pretty much like their movie counterparts, with loose-limbed Kevin Davis particularly notable as the Scarecrow, Al Schurmann nonthreateningly bellicose as the Lion and Joseph Louis Garces III not too stiff as the Tin Man.
The young Munchkins turn in commendable performances, with Merrick McMahon appearing as the Mayor and Casey Anderson turning in an amusing evocation of the movie Munchkins' tiny little voices.
As if he didn't have enough to do, director Sayles also appears as Uncle Henry and an official of Oz, though nothing is made of the physical resemblance between some Oz people and the folks back home in Kansas, as the film did.
The songs come across nicely, with the human voices combined with those prerecorded tracks. Paula Jones is credited as musical director. Also worthy of note is the scenery, including several backdrops illustrating numerous stops in Kansas and Oz. Mike Bollow is the stage manager.
* WHERE AND WHEN: "The Wizard of Oz" plays Thursday through Saturday nights, with Sunday matinees, through Aug. 18. Ticket prices range from $13.95 to $25.95, depending on the performance. Group rates are available, as are (for selected performances) discounts for children under 13 and seniors 55 and up. Full dinners are served on Friday and Saturday nights, there's soup, sandwiches and chips on Thursday, and a Sunday brunch. Reservations are mandatory; call (805) 656-3922.