Operetta Research Center
22 May, 2018
„The most magical adventure of them all …“ That’s how Andrew Lloyd Webber announced ‘his’ Wizard of Oz version at the London Palladium in 2011, a new cast album included. But the version most commonly performed today – apart for the 1939 movie – is a 1980s Royal Shakespeare Company stage adaptation. Which is also the one used at the opera house in Magdeburg. Considering that there are recordings of the original RSC cast (1989) featuring a cross-dressed Wicked Witch of the West, and a New York Concert CD (1996) with Debra Winger as the witch and Nathan Lane as the Cowardly Lion, not to mention a Madison Square Garden cast (1998) with Eartha Kitt as the witch and Mickey Rooney as the wizard, you might ask: why bother with Magdeburg?
Well, for one thing, the theater has what most German opera houses have but what most commercial venues in the UK and USA lack: a full symphonic orchestra, a full chorus, a children’s chorus, and a ballet group, plus a house ensemble and guest soloists. You’re unlikely to hear a more opulent Wizard of Oz anywhere, at least not live.
Considering these basic facts, this Der Zauberer von Oz could have been a marvelous affair. Also, it has two of my favorite young singers in it: Christian Miebach as the Scarecrow and Jan Rekeszus as the Lion. Reason enough to go see the last performance of the production and witness the exceptional talent in the magical land of Saxony-Anhalt, near the Elbe River.
The performance started, as was to be expected, with massive orchestral forces conducted by Tomohiro Seyama. Any Broadway producer would eat his or her heart out for such a soundscape (orchestrations by Larry Wilcox). The opening scenes on the farm of Aunt Em were suitably stylish and simple, using projections. But once the journey over the rainbow started, things went astray on a grand scale, at least for me. An indication that something might be amiss had been the fact that Toto, the dog, was reduced to an ‘imaginary friend’ of Dorothy’s and that he was, in effect, a woolen glove that’s taken from her by Miss Gulch. A little boy in front of me asked his grandmother what/who this Toto is supposed to be since he was nowhere to be seen. (I fully understand the boy’s confusion.)
It requires maximum imagination and stage craft to bring the various wonders of Oz to life in a theater – and with a provincial opera house budget. There is no one-rule-fits-all-solution. Considering that there is a full ballet group, you might have assumed that the staging would have emphasized the dancing and used it as a way of creating magic (choreography: Kerstin Ried). But apart from the rousing re-instated “Jitterbug” (cut from the movie) there were hardly any big dance sequences. The snowflakes and poppy blossom scene is hardly worth mentioning. And the flying monkeys (count them: two) didn’t fly anywhere other than up, and out.
I’m not quite sure what stage director Thomas Schmidt-Ehrenberg was thinking of, but he lost me along the way on that yellow brick path, which is a yellow metal bridge here. So my mind started to wander.
The stars I came to see were impressive, as always, and displayed suave stage presences. But directed and costumed as they were here, they didn’t come across as exceptional characters. Mr. Miebach was highly agile as the Scarecrow and danced fabulously, but he was a touch too ‘normal’ (vocally) for this fantasy figure. And the Lion – basically a cool young dude with big hair – never got to do anything a lion should do to make a profound impact.
But they were charming to watch, together with Alexander Soehnle as the Tin Man and Inga Krischke as Dorothy-minus-Toto. She, too, played her character as a young contemporary girl in Converse shoes and black leggings. Which is fine – but then, maybe, the whole world of Oz should have been adjusted to contemporary fantasy viewing habits? (Sets by Christiane Hercher, costumes by Jeannine Cleemen.)
Peter Wittig as the Wicked Witch was basically the only one who tried to deliver a real character performance, totally over the top (yeah!) but without any signs of green and without a broomstick. But hey, that’s not his fault.
It made me think how all this talent on stage and in the pit could have been utilized to bring the original 1902 stage version of The Wizard of Oz back. There is a wonderful double CD (Hungry Tiger Press) that contains all the music that’s acoustically available from back then – and a lot of music was used, over the years, to adapt the score to changing casts and their individual talents. I certainly would have loved to hear Jan Rekeszus with the cheerfully sadistic “Football” or with “Sammy,” or Christian Miebach with “Hurrah for Baffin’s Bay.”
Though composer Harold Arlen is wonderful, his 1939 Wizard of Oz has nothing going on, musically, after “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” All the other songs are so functional and book-driven they have no chance of a life beyond the production. And how do you top that Hollywood production with all it’s visual splendour? Any stage version falls foul of one of Ken Mandelbaum’s golden rules for musical failures: if a good movie version exists, you’re losing from the start and can only hope to fail honorably. Instead most fail disastrously. (Let’s say Magdeburg failed semi-honorably.)
[Thank you, Derek Scally, for pointing this out and reminding me of the Mandelbaum rules.]
The best thing about this performance, for me, were the enthusiastic female fans. For the applause at the end two girls in row 1 threw a white teddy bear onto the stage at Mr. Rekeszus. Who looked stunned. As it turned out, the girls were adoring fans with crushes on their hero, who also plays a lead part in Little Shop of Horrors in Magdeburg (as does Christian Miebach, as alternative cast). The two girls were at the stage door afterwards with a signature book, to get an autograph from their idol. Which brought a smile to my face, because that’s what theater should be about. (I guess soon they’ll throw underwear onto the stage.)
Obviously, operetta could use such titillating performers, too. Mr. Rekeszus hasn’t sung any operetta since his “Glitter and be gay” solo at the Bundeswettbewerb Gesang, and Mr. Miebach’s 2018 appearance in Bettelstudent in Rüdersdorf was cancelled; he did sing Edwin in Csardasfürstin there last year. Dashing to the max!
As a friend of mine remarked: “It would be fascinating to pull out all the music that exists and put together some kind of mish-mash version. Imagine one of the three – perhaps the tin man or lion – being operetta queens and singing the original 1902 score, while Dorothy and the Scarecrow are sassy and sing the 1939 version. Then the witch is all out on her own and gets new, Wicked-inspired power ballads. It could be a hit!” (I could be, indeed.)
Meanwhile, the next big Wizard of Oz is coming up in the UK at Blackpool Winter Gardens, starring X-Factor sensation Holly Tandy, and Radio Wave’s Scott Gallagher as the Cowardly Lion. And in Magdeburg you can look forward to more outstanding young talent in their upcoming open-air production of Jesus Christ Superstar. (Yes, Andrew Lloyd Webber is always around the corner, it seems.)
Christian Miebach is in this rock opera, as is the lovely Julia Gamez-Martin as Mary Magdalene. And then there is Tobias Bieri as the son of god. Should my mind start to wander during that performance too, in June, I can think of at least 100 operetta roles I’d like to see him in, and Miss Gamez-Martin too. No, make that 200. If I run out of titles, I can always consult Kurt Gänzl’s Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre and pick some totally forgotten shows.
To be fair, the Zauberer von Oz might not have been my personal cup of tea. But German audiences practically don’t know the movie, so the auditorium was filled with hoards of children and young adults who approached the performance with different expectations than me. Judging from their enthusiastic cheering – of X-Factor dimension – they enjoyed the show. They certainly enjoyed the star(s). As did I. So all was well in the end. And I look forward to my next trip to Magdeburg where there is a Csardasfürstin and Nacht in Venedig in the repertoire as well, not with Bieri-Rekeszus-Miebach or Gamez-Martin/Inga Krischke … but who knows, that might change one day.
For more information on the upcoming Jesus Christ Superstar, click here.