The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz

Theater, Drama
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Go back over the rainbow with the House’s remount of its engaging Oz riff.

The House Theatre reaches back down its own yellow brick road to revisit another early hit, Phillip Klapperich’s 2005 reconceiving of L. Frank Baum’s original Oz story. Riffs on The Wizard of Oz are as common at this point as new takes on Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan; the House’s isn’t even the only version of Dorothy’s story in Chicago right now, with Kokandy Productions’ excellent revival of The Wiz still onstage a couple of miles north. (Perhaps theater makers desperate for new public-domain source material should band together to lobby Congress for copyright-law reform.)

Luckily for audiences, these stories provide sturdy frameworks for fresh interpretation, and Klapperich’s retelling offers plenty to recommend it, from its smart modernization of the characters’ vernacular to pathbreaking theatrical story beats for everyone from the Wizard to Toto, the latter again endearingly embodied by original cast member Joey Steakley. (The little dog, too, provides the moment most likely to make this version too scary for very young audience members.) AnJi White is a delicious new addition, savoring the Witch of the West’s wicked ways, and Michael E. Smith’s comic presence is deeply appreciated as the Lion, with a dash of southern-fried Lahr.

It’s also rewarding to see how far the House’s theatrical capabilities have come over the last dozen years, as well as when they remember to keep it simple. Witness the climactic attack of the flying monkeys, which sends actors soaring over our heads in a space where that feels like it should be impossible, even as we’re in full view of all the ropes and run crew. They may have heftier budgets these days, but the House is still at its best when it makes us believe in wizardry even while we’re seeing behind the curtain.

The House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre. By Phillip Klapperich. Directed by Tommy Rapley. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 10mins; one intermission.

By: Kris Vire

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