“The Wizard of Oz” is hardwired into our psyches. When we hear “Yellow Brick Road,” half of us are thinking, “OK, Dorothy, walk to the painted backdrop, turn, wave, and then fade to the second commercial break.”
So think how high the bar was set when the stage version of “The Wizard of Oz” opened Thursday night at the NorShor Theatre.
People were actually singing “We’re Off to See the Wizard” in the Skywalk on their way to the show.
Then the overture began, and you could feel the magic coming as soon as the singing started. When Toto (Truman, in an enchanting theatrical debut) ran onstage, the entire audience went, “Awwwwww.”
The big test came early when Meghan Jarecki’s Dorothy sang “Over the Rainbow,” including the introductory verse omitted from the film, which allowed Jarecki to sing the song on her own terms.
As soon as Dorothy sang “Somewhere…,” you got a lump in your throat, and people around you were wiping their eyes. Jarecki has more brass in her voice than Judy Garland, never tried to compete with her signature warble, and went for a really big last note that sealed the deal.
There is so much joy and fun in this show to make you smile nonstop.
A chief pleasure in this production is everything director-choreographer Joe Chvala and his cohorts have come up with to bring the movie to life on stage.
This show is littered with wonderful little bits, from Professor Marvel’s campfire to the witch’s giant crystal ball. Then there is the show’s hardworking ensemble as the crows, the apple trees, the poppies, the Winkies, and the non-winged flying monkeys.
But the tour-de-force is the stunning storm sequence that recreates everything up to Dorothy’s dramatic landing in Oz.
Even that is topped by the hilarious arrival of the Munchkins, who are totally primed to win a dance-off with the bottle dancers from “Fiddler.”
A rubbery limbed Stuart Gordon plays the scarecrow, Brendan Finn is the amiable tin man, and Michael Kraklio delivers laughs as Professor Marvel, the wizard, and the doorman in between.
Mike Pederson’s entrance as the lion is another showstopper. Pederson really embraces Bert Lehr’s iconic performance, and the audience cheered his “If I Were King of the Forest.” Pederson added some physical bits that absolutely slayed. You know every funny line Pederson is going to say before he says it, and you still laugh. Every single time.
This is not a verbatim transcript of the film, but an adaptation that has the trio of farmhands foreshadowing like crazy what is to come, and it doubles the one-liners.
As Miss Gulch/the wicked witch, a cackling Christina Stroup makes you think of Cruella Deville/Elphaba more than Margaret Hamilton. Stroup is creatively countered by Louisa Scorich doubling as Auntie Em/Glinda.
Ann Gumpper’s stellar scenic design combines with Alex Peck’s lighting and a multitude of colorful costumes to make the stage magical.
Audience members are invited to come up on stage after the curtain call to have their pictures taken with the costumed cast members.
Yes, Toto, too.
Lawrance Bernabo is a theater and arts reviewer for the News Tribune.
If you go
What: "The Wizard of Oz"
Where: NorShor Theatre, 211 E. Superior St.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday & Sunday through Dec. 22
Tickets: $40-$50 at 218-733-7555 and duluthplayhouse.org.