For two hours and 15 minutes on Wednesday night it was a joy to be transported to Kansas and Oz, where heroes and villains are a little more clearly delineated. The phenomenon begun by L. Frank Baum with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900 and catapulted into pop culture in 1939 by Judy Garland, is as timeless as ever on the Walnut Street Theatre stage. All the characters and songs are here - even Toto, performed with gusto by Dusty, whose presence on stage clearly delighted the audience.
It's a challenge to follow Garland as Dorothy Gale, but Adrienne Eller is fully capable. Her version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is beautiful, and some tears may have even formed while her delicate vibrato evoked simpler times. No production of Wizard would be complete without some dynamic witches, namely Glinda the Good Witch of the North (Lyn Philistine) and The Wicked Witch of the West (Ellie Mooney), and both actors deliver - Philistine as an angelic, benevolent Glinda and Aunt Em; Mooney as a maniacal, menacing Miss Gulch and cackling green witch.
The trio of farmhands who become Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and the Lion in Dorothy's dream are great, too. Christopher Sutton's falling-over-himself scarecrow is physically spot-on; Nichalas L. Parker's big, bad Lion is hilarious comic relief and often a scene-stealer; and Christopher Shin's Tin Woodman is charmingly emotive.
One of the best parts of the whole show is in Act 1: the kids. The Children's Ensemble, which works in 15-person weekday and weekend teams, stole many hearts. As the Munchkins, they stole the show. Costumed to look like a hybrid of Whoville natives and Chocolate Factory residents, the Lollipop Guild sent the crowd into roars.
One impressive feat was the flying witches and monkeys. With a tornado, two flying and floating witches, plus the Wicked Witch's monkey army, there's a lot in flight, and the Walnut's space is magically transformed.
The entry into "The Merry Old Land of Oz" brought to mind the trippy interpretation from NBC's The Wiz Live last December, when voguers and dancers-in-formation greeted Dorothy and company. No such modernization happens here, but a Simba joke from Lion was not wholly unnoticed. An impressive brass-heavy orchestra pushes this production into joyous, revelatory territory. When producing artistic director Bernard Havard greeted the crowd, and told the story of L. Frank Baum's son - who says his father was the "swellest guy" and emphatically wished us a happy holiday season - you could tell he was ready to be transported to Oz or Kansas. It is, indeed, a lively and healthy distraction from life in trying times.
The Wizard of Oz. Through Jan. 8 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $20-$95. Information: 215-574-3550 or walnutstrettheatre.org.