By Bryson David Hoff
No other story occupies quite the same space in American culture as The Wizard of Oz. The tale, through its various iterations, is at once a quintessential American fantasy novel, one of the few wholly American fairytales, and, thanks to the 1939 film adaption, an almost universal source of childhood nostalgia, especially for those in the theatre community.
It is this last form of the classic story that drives Victory Gardens Theater’s WOZ: A Rock Cabaret.
WOZ, which follows the structure of the MGM film practically beat-for-beat, mixes excerpted dialogue from the movie with ‘80s and ‘90s pop anthems for an evening almost perfectly designed to target the nostalgia centers of the audience’s brains. This, coupled with the play’s self-referential humor, leads to something that might be termed a hard-rock vaudeville act on Ozian themes.
This self-awareness is apparent from the opening moments in the show, in which each member of the company directly addresses the audience with the story of their earliest experiences with The Wizard of Oz, most of which stem from early childhood. Indeed, throughout the evening’s proceedings, all members of the cast present, by turns, both their assigned role within the narrative and the role of Chicago-based actor performing in a cabaret.
This conceit is something of a double-edged sword, as it both allows space for humorous comment on the original while also making it difficult to stay engaged with the narrative as, unlike in the MGM film, the characters are never fully engaged in the dramatic situations wherein they find themselves. This, compounded with other structural issues, makes the show difficult to invest in, emotionally speaking.
This is perhaps too harsh a criticism, however, to levy at a performance that explicitly bills itself as a cabaret. For all of the reverence that the cast and creative team clearly hold for the MGM film, the plot is very much a framework on which to hang the music.
The cast, overwhelmingly made up of return performers from previous incarnations of the piece, truly represents some of the best musical theatre voices in Chicago. Kimberly Lawson shines in the roll of Dorothy, combining an almost childlike enthusiasm with a bright and effortless belt that forms the backbone of the performance, as she is never not on stage. Kevin Webb, on temporary loan from Pride Films and Plays’ current production a bit farther north in Andersonville, provides the bulk of laughs in his role as the thoroughly camp and effortlessly witty Scarecrow, proving that he is much more than just a well-tuned set of vocal chords.
It would be remiss not to mention veteran of both Chicago and New York theatre André De Shields, who appears in the lamentably minor roll of The Wizard. His gravitas and distinctive vocal quality make him the obvious standout amongst the cast. It’s enough to make one wish that the script gave him more to do, though this may be a conscious decision on the part of the company to drum up more interest in Mr. De Shields’s one-man show Confessions of a P.I.M.P., which goes up next month.
Unfortunately, while the talents of the cast are undeniable, there is something unsatisfying in the manner in which the musical numbers are integrated into the story. While there is not a pressing need for clarity, given that there is scarcely an American alive without at least a vague familiarity of the story, problems of cohesion between the plot and the music often make it difficult for the audience to maintain emotional investment in the proceedings.
The Wicked Witch’s rendition of Blondie’s “One Way or Another” springs to mind as an example. The initial joke works well in its juxtaposition of the cultural context of the song with its context within the narrative. However as the verses pile up, it becomes difficult to ignore that the lyrics are describing a situation all together different than what the character of the Wicked Witch is experiencing at this moment in the story. Thus, moments like these further remove the audience from a place of emotional investment, as the character is no longer the one singing the song. This is merely one example of the creative teams prioritization of fitting in the entire song at the expense of serving the story, a major problem in a piece of musical theatre.
This may again seem an unduly harsh criticism for a theatre piece whose main purpose is to showcase talented performers singing classic commercial music. However, by placing the music over the framework of a story this well known, WOZ suffers under the weight of expectations to offer up some comment on the synergy between the traditional plot and the modern score.
The upshot of this is a cabaret that is undeniably a lot of fun to watch and listen to, but which may leave the observer unsatisfied once it is over, provided that they go into it expecting the evening’s novel premise to blossom into some deeper comment about what The Wizard of Oz has to say about modern America or about what the pop music of modern America may be able to say about The Wizard of Oz. In short, those looking for a fun and uncomplicated evening’s entertainment will be well served, however those expecting a richer retelling are likely to leave unsatisfied.
“WOZ: A Rock Cabaret” performs at Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, on Saturday, July 16, at 2 pm and 7:30 pm and Sunday, July 17, at 2 pm. Tickets are $40 and available online here, by phone at (773) 871-3000, or in person at the Victory Gardens Theater box office. Students and senior discounts are available. Photos by Michael Courier.