Review: Paramount Theatre’s 'The Wizard of Oz' an exquisite experience

“I’ll get you, my pretty – and your little dog, too!” “The dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.” “If I only had a brain …” “Follow the yellow brick road!” “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

These lines and lyrics from the 1939 classic film “The Wizard of Oz,” starring Judy Garland, are seared into our memories. Although it only won two Oscars, including one for the song “Over the Rainbow,” it’s a movie with legions of fans.

In 1998, the American Film Institute polled 1,500 leaders of the film community (screenwriters, directors, actors, cinematographers, etc.) to pick the top 100 films of all time. ‘“The Wizard of Oz” came in sixth. Only “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca,” “The Godfather,” “Gone With the Wind,” and “Lawrence of Arabia” were higher on the list.

Aurora’s Paramount Theatre tapped the perfect individual to bring the stage musical of “The Wizard of Oz” to life in all its glory: director/choreographer Amber Mak, a Kansas native who has acted in eight productions of the show and directed successful productions of “The Little Mermaid” and “Elf The Musical” at the Paramount.

Watching Dorothy (Elizabeth Stenholt), the Scarecrow (Kyle Adams), the Tinman (Huntley’s Carl Draper) and the Cowardly Lion (Paul-Jordan Jansen) on their quest for a way home, a brain, a heart and courage in the magical land of Oz, I found myself writing one word in big letters on my notepad: smiling. I was grinning from ear to ear.

This production reminded me so much of what I loved about the movie: a classic story with endearing characters, fun and touching songs (“Over the Rainbow,” “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead”), a hissable villain (Wicked Witch of the West, played by Caron Buinis), a lot of humor and a moral in which our heroine understands that running away beyond the rainbow isn’t always the best option when you have the love of your family and friends at home.

Stenholt is a joy as Dorothy, with a beautiful, emotion-filled singing voice and an embodiment of the character who starts out caring more about herself and her dog than about others, but matures and learns from people such as the Wizard (Gene Weygandt, who played this role in “Wicked” some years ago) that “a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”

Adams is amazingly limber (watch his initial minutes as the Scarecrow after he’s let down off the post where he’s failed to scare away birds) and has a line that he played to 2018 comedic perfection when asked by Dorothy how he could talk if he didn’t have a brain: “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talkin’.”

Draper’s character may need a heart, but Draper himself puts a lot of heart into his portrayal. And Buinis sinks her teeth into the Wicked Witch part. When she’s driven crazy by the incessant chanting of her guards, she gets a great laugh with, “Why do you always do that loathsome dirge?”

But my favorite character may well be Jansen’s Cowardly Lion. He has such fun – boasting about what he’d do if he was “King of the Forest” in an Act II solo and showing his true “scaredy-cat” colors in earlier scenes – that the audience is eager to see him show the courage that’s eluded him.

Behind the scenes, major praise is due for puppetry designer Jesse Mooney-Bullock for his amazingly detailed/designed puppets (e.g., the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys); Mak for the overall shepherding of these performances; costume designer Theresa Ham for tons of vibrantly colored outfits in Munchkinland, the Emerald City, the field of poppies and elsewhere in Kansas and Oz; and music director/conductor Kory Danielson, whose 14-piece orchestra expertly supports the cast. There’s even a cairn terrier that plays Toto; you won’t believe it when Dorothy walks away from a bale of hay in the middle of “Over the Rainbow” and Toto knows to stay on the hay!

I did have one minor quibble about a famous scene late in the second act: The use of water needs to be more obvious if it’s going to cause a major physical reaction to a character.

If you’re looking for a fun date night or an outing for the family, follow the yellow brick road, or at least Randall Road, to Aurora by Jan. 6. Why? “Because, because, because, because, because! Because of the wonderful things” they’ve done with “The Wizard of Oz.”

• Paul Lockwood is a past president of TownSquare Players and an occasional community theater actor in McHenry County, appearing in more than 30 plays and musicals since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001. Recent shows include “42nd Street,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” “On Golden Pond,” “9 to 5: The Musical,” “A Christmas Carol” (2014 and 2016) and “Into the Woods.”

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