Toto's out, Imogene's in along yellow brick road

The 1902 operetta Oz that wowed Broadway with its comedy routines comes to Tarpon Springs.

Published July 7, 2006

The Wizard of Oz opening tonight at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center has a huge cast, scores of colorful costumes, impressively large sets, energetic music and dancing, a girl from Kansas named Dorothy, a Wizard, a Scarecrow, a Tin Woodman and a twister.

But it doesn't have the familiar plot or songs of the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland, nor a Toto the Dog. Instead, Dorothy's pal is Imogene the Cow (Lisa Ferguson).

This Wizard is the original, 1902 musical that was a blockbuster in its day, and it barely resembles either the movie or the musicals produced by community and regional theaters since the movie version was made for the stage.

Indeed, this is only the third time on record that this version of Wizard has been done since its long run in the early 1900s. In 1998, a youth theater group did the show in Tarpon Springs, and in 2003, a regional theater did it in Indiana.

"Nobody has ever heard of it," said Constantine Grame, who directed the 1998 show and is also directing this one. "It is amazing, considering the success that it enjoyed."

Indeed, the show ran for nearly 300 performances on Broadway - a phenomenal run for its day -and toured for more than a decade thereafter. The script was written by L. Frank Baum, who based it on one of the 14 books he wrote about The Land of Oz. But Baum changed the book's plot and language to appeal more to grown-ups than to children. (Interestingly, the 1939 movie is more like Baum's original book.)

This version is more like an operetta - lots of spoken dialogue interspersed with semiclassical music that doesn't always advance the plot - and filled with comic routines reminiscent of vaudeville, the most popular art form of the day.

There are three loosely connected story lines: Dorothy (Jessica Moraton) is blown to The Country of the Munchkins in the Land of Oz by a tornado and seeks the Wizard of Oz to return her home; Cynthia Cynch (Julie Effron), a self-professed "lady lunatic," is searching everywhere for her long-lost love, Niccolo, who plays the piccolo; and the pompous Pastoria II (Mitchell LeVine), the accidentally (perhaps) exiled king of the Emerald City is hoping to regain his throne.

Intrigue is provided by Sir Wylie Gyle (John Benincasa), who believes the throne should be his. Romance comes with Tryxie Tryfle (Melody Belcher) who met Pastoria during the whirlwind and hopes to become queen of the Emerald City when he becomes king.

Pastoria's dancing army of young girls and women is led by Brigadier General Riskitt (Rick Bronson). Private Gruph (Dale Laird) guards the gate to the city.

Comedy is often provided by clever word plays and puns that require close listening:

For example, when Dorothy asks Scarecrow if he can walk, he replies, "No, but I'll take steps to learn"; or after the Tin Woodman's rust hole is repaired, he quips, "I'm now a soldered, but wiser man."

The comedy routines by the Scarecrow and Woodman are a large part of the show. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Bruce P. Taylor) gets laughs for his elaborate magic tricks.

The show takes a serious turn when the Wizard is deposed and Pastoria takes over. Dorothy warns the village that they may not have taken the best course, and, sure enough, Pastoria arrests Scarecrow and Tin Woodman and orders Dorothy's execution.

It is only through quick thinking - and the help of the Witch of the North (Ellie LeVine) - that Dorothy helps her new friends and herself escape, but the play ends with the future of the Emerald City in doubt.

If you go:

WHAT: The 1902 light opera, The Wizard of Oz

WHERE: Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center, 324 Pine St., Tarpon Springs

WHEN: Tonight and weekends through July 23. Shows are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays.

TICKETS: Adults, $16; center members and students, $14. Call (727) 942-5605