Dressed in drag, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ sparkles and sings 

“The Wizard of Oz” is done, and redone, a lot. Think of the all-Black version “The Wiz,” or the Broadway smash hit “Wicked,” currently being adapted for film. Just last year, Geva Theatre staged an immigration-inspired version with “Somewhere Over the Border.” And now, Geva returns to Oz with the stage adaptation of the 1939 MGM movie.

Is there anything new or interesting left in “The Wizard of Oz”?

This production, playing through October 1, answers with a resounding “Yas, queen.” No matter how many times you’ve seen “The Wizard of Oz,” you’ve never seen it like this: a multimedia, Brechtian drag show featuring a largely genderfluid cast, with an unapologetically timely message.

The show opens on a modest stage with an upright piano, a fold-up table and chair, a clothesline, and a television screen welcoming audiences to “Drag Story Hour.” Aunt Em, played by “RuPaul’s Drag Race” finalist Rosé, enters in a stunning pink dress, pink scarf, and pink heels. She opens a sparkly pink suitcase and pulls out a copy of the L. Frank Baum novel “The Wizard of Oz.” She blows the dust off.
click to enlarge PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.

Everything that follows is the standard script, but thanks to Zi Alikhan’s brilliant direction and a phenomenal cast, the dust has, indeed, been blown off. So much so that you start to wonder if “The Wizard of Oz” was written specifically for (and about) 2023 America.

Dorothy (played with a charming youthful optimism by Savy Jackson), 
click to enlarge Savy Jackson plays Dorothy. - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • Savy Jackson plays Dorothy.
enters with a rainbow “Protect Queer Kids” bag on their arm. This bag becomes a stand-in for the dog Toto, who Dorothy wants to protect against the threatening-yet-delightfully comic Miss Almira Gulch (Jennifer Sánchez). Miss Gulch is now an archetypical Karen—an outspoken white woman touting a “Live Laugh Love” bag who complains that the harmless Toto is a “menace to society.” When the adults offer no help in getting Toto back, the heartbroken Dorothy runs away and gets swept up in a tornado – that is, a “Mothers Against Drag” protest.

Once over the rainbow in Oz, drag is everywhere. Rosé reappears as the glamorous Glinda. The femme Scarecrow (Easton Michaels), is decked out in ruffles and Care Bears, with straw legs that give out into death drops, a vogue dance move. The Cowardly Lion (Pauli Pontrelli) dons a lion backpack and a head of curls that are more Marilyn Monroe than Mufasa. The notable exception is the Wicked Witch of the West, who looks like a conservative newscaster behind her “Best West” podium. Instead of a broomstick, she wields a megaphone.
click to enlarge Rosé as Glinda - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • Rosé as Glinda

This is not a subtle show, but that’s the point. Queer people have long needed to hide behind subtext or euphemisms. Gay men have historically been slyly referred to as “friends of Dorothy,” a nod to actress Judy Garland’s status as a gay icon. The show basks in the cultural progress that has allowed many queer people to exist openly, while still acknowledging the rise of legislative threats to drag expression and healthcare rights for transgender youth.

Political commentary aside, this production is fun. It’s jam-packed with cultural references to everything from Beyoncé to “The Golden Girls” to Amazon’s Alexa. Every moment is a feast for the senses, thanks to a whirlwind of color and motion coming from lively choreography by Phil Colgan and Jayme Bermudez, colorful lighting by Cha See, and exuberant costume design by Lux Haac. Dorothy’s bag even transforms into a dog, thanks to the puppetry magic of designer Emma Wiseman. Oz is a world of bubbles, sparkles, googly-eyes, and joy.
click to enlarge Savy Jackson plays Dorothy. - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • Savy Jackson plays Dorothy.

There’s not a weak link in the cast, which features both national actors and local talent, including Thomas Warfield who is perfectly cast as the eponymous Wizard. Orchestrator Anessa Marie offers fresh, exciting arrangements of the classic Arlen & Harburg tunes. (Who knew Tinman’s “If I Only Had a Heart,” performed by Barnaby Reiter, could be a deeply moving rock ballad?) Another standout is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which shows off Jackson’s range, building from a croon over an acoustic guitar into a classic Broadway belt.
click to enlarge Thomas Warfield as the Wizard. - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • Thomas Warfield as the Wizard.

The show is also a digital spectacle, making clever use of television screens and projections designed by Nicholas Hussong. Many characters have smartphones, and Professor Marvel’s magic crystal ball is now a computer equipped with Google map surveillance. The Emerald City is a TV studio set, and the all-mighty, famously fraudulent Oz looks and sounds AI-generated. This production’s glitz and technological pizazz are dazzling, and offer a notable contrast to the Kansas scenes. The show opens with the actors holding scripts and ends with a simple, low-tech finale. In an age of screens and distractions, there’s no place like home—that is, theater.

If producing “The Wizard of Oz” is like beating a dead horse, this production not only brings that horse back to life, it transforms it into a unicorn with a rainbow tail. For just over two sparkling, musical, googly-eyed filled hours, this show will have you believing the dreams you dare to dream really do come true.

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