Thursday, July 6, 2023

Returning to Oz

I just saw Michael Raabe and Eric Davis's new musical Oz, produced by FreeFall Theatre Company in St. Petersburg. This clever and moving piece about the life of L. Frank Baum after he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz deserves to be seen by more people.

As the play makes clear, Baum started out as a dramatist and actor, but he never truly found success until he penned what would go on to become one of the greatest children's books of all time. Illustrated by W.W. Denslow (who also appears as a character in the play), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became an astounding success when it was published in 1900 and spawned numerous sequels.

When the play Oz opens, Baum is already famous for his Oz books. His collaboration with Denslow is recounted in the tuneful number "On the Same Page" which gets a reprise as the two license their story out to Broadway to become a musical spectacular. Director Julian Mitchell delivered a hit, but with a completely re-written script that bore scanty resemblance to the story Baum had written. All this gets conveyed in Oz quite economically with a toe-tapping number the audience loved.

After his disappointment with the stage version of his book, Baum turned to writing sequels, including The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, which delighted children. However, he had ambitions of being a "serious" writer who wrote politically important books for adults. This is the part of Baum's life that Oz focuses on--his continued attempts to break free of children's books and write serious literature. In a hilarious couplet he sings: "No more talking chickens / I could be the next Dickens!"

The thing is, Baum's genius was for children's literature, and in particular for that one amazing place in the sky where Dorothy had her adventures. Though he tried to end the series forever, cutting the Land of Oz off from our own world once and for all, he ultimately had to return to Oz in his writing. Raabe and Davis's musical does a great job telling this story, aided by a game cast led by David Foley, Jr. as Baum himself.

Oz is only running through July 9th, so if you haven't seen it yet, get your tickets now!