By ROY BERKO
Since 1959, Dobama Theatre has been dedicated to premiering important new plays by established and emerging playwrights in professional productions of the highest quality. The Land of Oz, is a good selection for them to undertake.
Dobama’s multi-talented artistic director Nathan Motta has incorporated his training as a music composer with his directing experience, to aid George Brant to undertake the development of The Land of Oz, a musical intended to expose local audiences to yet another view of L. Frank Baum’s world of enchantment. In this case, the plot is based on the second book in the “Oz” series, “The Marvelous Land of Oz.”
As is the case with all of Baum’s books, the themes are both timeless and relevant to the modern world.
Motto’s score for The Land of Oz features songs in a variety of American popular music styles.
Brandt, who is a member of the Dramatists Guild, has had his works produced internationally and nationally. Local stagings have been presented at the Cleveland Play House and Dobama.
The story of The Land of Oz centers around a young orphan boy named Tip who is the ward of an evil witch. When he escapes, with the help of a magical new friend, Tip sets out on an adventure to the Emerald City. Along the way he encounters the Scarecrow, Tin Man, a woogle bug and a rebel army on their way to take over Oz! (No, there is no Dorothy, Toto, Aunt Em or even the Wizard.)
The tale examines friendship, loneliness, good overcoming evil, discovering where one comes from and why they are, where they are and the wonder of finding help in a path to the future (whether one is on the Yellow Brick Road, or not).
Dobama should be praised for undertaking the development of a new theatre piece. Such a task is daunting. Creating a musical is an awesome job. Not only does the writer have to select a source for the plot (a former play—think Pygmalion as it morphs into My Fair Lady), a film (“The Lion King” as it is transformed into Lion King: The Musical), comic strips such as “Little Abner” and “Little Orphan Annie” or comic books like “Superman” being reinvented as musicals, or a writer or writers creating new stories, such as developing Dear Evan Hansen or A Chorus Line.
The score has to be composed to develop the right mood, fit into the story and develop the characters. This is harder than it appears. The wrong music can curse a show. Several of the American musical theatre’s major hits were almost doomed by their opening songs.
Fiddler on the Roof found audiences walking out during its out-of-town tryouts. When Jerome Robbins replaced the original director/choreographer, he sat through the performances, called the writing team together and asked, “What’s the show about?” After comments such as “Life in Europe in the early 20th century,” and “A milkman and his daughters,” someone suggested “the traditions of the people that allow them to exist and endure.”
Robbins is purported to have said, “Then someone write a song to start the show that tells the audience what the show is about and gets the audience ready for that message. Get rid of the present opening, “The Village Our Grandparents Grew Up In.” That theme won’t get and hold the attention.” Thus, the song “Tradition” was written and the script and music were reformatted to fit that theme.
Similarly, the opening number of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, originally the pretty, but bland, “Love Is In the Air,” became the frothy, delightful, somewhat sexy, “Comedy Tonight.” Audiences knew they were going to see a funny show and were given the direction to enjoy themselves. And they did!
If not for the changes, Fiddler on the Roof would never have been the first Broadway musical to run over 3000 performances and you wouldn’t even had heard of Forum.
The first act of The Land of Oz drags – lots of audience wiggling and lack of attention. Maybe the writing team should ask, “What’s this musical about?” and write an opening song that teases us into the tale and sets the emotional mood.
In a traditional musical, the central character, early in the show usually sings an “I want” song in which they tell the audience what they need. That wish is a keystone to develop the plot. Think of “Maybe” in Annie, where she wants parents or “I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line, where each dancer wants a job in the chorus.
Tip does have such a song, but is it strong enough to let the audience know that this is going to be the theme of the show?
Sitting in a dark theatre can be tiresome. Usually about 20 minutes into each of the acts, in a two-act show, there is a “noisy number,” a showstopper, which wakes up the show and the audience. What are the noisy numbers in The Land of Oz? I’m not sure. Maybe that is why the first act seemed to drag on and on.
The analysis could go on and on, but….
It is through the production team going through the writing and staging process – write, critique, rewrite, read, critique, rewrite, stage, critique, re-stage and perform before a non-biased audience, then gauge their interest, perform again, and keep assessing and making appropriate changes – that the job gets done.
The same can be said for the staging of any show.
The Dobama production features Jordyn Freetage (Tip), Lana Sugarman (Glinda/ Jellia/ Lieutenant), Trinidad Snider (Mombi), Eric Fancher (Jack), Fabio Polanco (Scarecrow), Jason Eno (Tin Man), Neely Gevaart (Jinjur), Dar’Jon Bentley (Lion/ Guardian), Trey Gilpin (Woggle Bug), Tim Keo (Winkie/ Doorman/ Throne).
They all should be proud of their efforts. Each night the show should get better as the performers acknowledge new insights into their characters. With the help of an attentive director and self-awareness on the part of the actors, they will grow as characters.
Developing a new musical is hard work. It is not for the sensitive, the egotistical, those who can’t admit that the show wasn’t perfect with the first effort, the second effort, or even the tenth redo.
The creative team for the production includes music direction by Matthew Dolan, choreography by Gregory Daniels, scenic and projection Design by T. Paul Lowry, lighting design by David Stoughton, sound design by Richard Ingraham, dostume design by Tesia Benson, props design by Vanessa Cook, puppet design by Mike Horner, and technical direction by Marcus Dana. The band consists of Rachel Woods (keyboard), Justin Hart (drums), Jesse Fishman (guitar), Tim Keo (bass), R.J. Rovito (reeds).
Capsule judgment: Dobama’s The Land of Oz should be seen as a work in progress. It is quite good, for a new piece. It will be a better experience for the audience after it is put through more tests.
The Land of Oz, which runs December 2 – 31, 2022, has a running time of two hours, including one 15-minute intermission. For tickets: www.dobama.com or call 216-932-3396.
Roy Berko is a member of the Cleveland Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association.