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It’s 6:30pm, and Rachel Womble is seated upright, facing a well-lit mirror, her hair pinned up in tight ringlets, and working on her third shade of eyeshadow. After that, it’s lips, then blush, then the wireless microphones (two mics for this show, one is a backup). This is all before she has to go into another room to have crystals attached to her face, and a giant blue wig attached to her head. It’s all step-by-step, and at times looks like Marie Antoinette on acid, all of it deeply disconcerting. But, when it’s all done, the young lady from Sherman, Texas is transformed into Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.
It’s night two of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Wizard of Oz at the National Theatre, and things are going more or less according to plan, exactly the way they should. Surprises and the unexpected are not really welcome in a production like this. The show has a major cast of about ten with an ensemble of twenty. This is a surprisingly big show, in one of the District’s smaller theaters. Normally, this show calls for a 54-foot-wide stage. The National only has 48.
So, in order for the production to work, the crew has to make special adjustments to the show and set pieces. Also, the cast has to be on their toes throughout each performance. While Womble doesn’t seem to be stressed at all about her performance this evening, she’s putting on her makeup with the same precision architects have when drawing a line on a blueprint. Everything is measured, careful, calculated, symmetrical, and perfect.
Glinda’s not the only character getting ready, either. With less than an hour before curtain, Emmanuelle Zeesman is drawing crow’s feet onto her face for her role as Auntie Em. Jay McGill is about to get into costume for his role as the Tin Man. Shani Hadjian sits in another makeup chair, eyes straight ahead, while chin and nose prosthetics are being fixed to her face. When I asked her how restricted her facial movements are with the Wicked Witch makeup on, she said “oh, these things are so soft, they don’t hinder anything. You can pinch my nose to see how light it is, if you like.” Yes, I got to honk the Wicked Witch’s nose.
Meanwhile, the ushers tear tickets, the audience finds their seats, and the orchestra tunes up. Showtime won’t be long, and the cast is ready for places. Rachel Womble is sparkling.
This production of The Wizard of Oz differs slightly from the 1939 MGM epic. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical additions fill in some of the gaps he thought were left wide open in the film. Tim Rice’s new lyrics also give scope to some of the most-beloved characters in the history of American film. Purists will likely bristle at this, but purists also tend to bristle at a lot of things. What was particularly encouraging about the Thursday night performance was the number of kids in the audience, and how wholeheartedly they reacted to the show. When the green and terrifying Wicked Witch of the West appears over a balcony, and tells the citizens of Oz to surrender Dorothy “or else!”, there were more than several shrieks from the younger members of the audience. This is stage magic, and it works on the audience.
The new show, running for two weeks at the National, is less of a by-the-book re-telling, but more of a colorful celebration of a classic story. The use of blacklight, fluorescent paint, pyrotechnics, and digital projectors add a slightly unsettling feel to the show. Then again, parts of this show should be unsettling. After all, we’re not in Kansas anymore.