L. Frank Baum, author of the beloved Oz books that inspired the even-more-beloved film, was (Wikipedia tells me) an interesting guy. At various times he was actor, newspaperman, chicken farmer, dry goods salesman, and store window display expert. He married the daughter of a famed women’s suffragist. Finally, he was a prolific author, with 14 Oz books, 41 other novels, 83 short stories, more than 200 poems, and at least 42 scripts to his name.
About OZ at freeFall: A Musical
The musical OZ, premiering this month at freeFall Theatre, touches on many of these stages in his checkered career. It also touches on Baum’s happy marriage to Maud Gage. The show in many ways delights. It has lilting music and lyrics by Michael Raabe and Eric Davis and an expert cast directed with elan by Davis. There are enchanting allusions to familiar Oz characters, a versatile set that makes smart use of projections, and sumptuous period costumes. And Raabe’s masterful musical direction leads an ensemble of guitar, cello, and percussion from the piano.
Originally scheduled for freeFall’s 2019-20 season, the show has evolved since then. OZ clearly reflects Raabe’s and Davis’s admiration for Baum and the fictional worlds he created. Given that, I’m puzzled why there’s so much focus on a period in the author’s life when he, dismissive of his Oz books, struggled to write more “grown-up” novels. The show wants to be part exploration of the creative process — in an interview provided by freeFall, Raabe compares it to “Sunday in the Park with George meets Finding Neverland.” But as a result, it often feels at odds with itself: a musical called OZ in which Baum, the creator of Oz, is bored — by Oz.
Part of the problem may be structural redundancy.
At first, it’s adorable when Elizabeth L. Meckler and Drew H. Wells, standing next to projections of children from the period, embody Baum’s fervent young fans. Those plead with him, in letters, to write more Oz books. But when they reappear in the second act — albeit as different children, with different photos and different adorable pleas — I found myself thinking, “He hasn’t got the message yet?”
Similarly, it’s a shot of theatrical magic when the ever-magical Roxanne Fay appears in a burst of smoke as the ghost of Maud’s formidable mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage, visiting from the afterlife to give Baum a kick in the butt and get him writing again. But by the second act, she has apparently become a fixture in the Baum household, interacting with the family and still asking how his “grownup novel” is coming.
Some trims in other areas could help. The opening number, “In Other Lands Than Ours,” effectively establishes the yearning for adventure embodied in both fantasy and the Baums’ world tour, but maybe we didn’t have to visit so many of the countries on their itinerary. A duet between mother and daughter in the second act, “Mother, Sister, Friend,” is beautifully performed by Fay and Melissa Minyard (radiant as Maud), but it feels extraneous. And I seriously did not get what was going on in the second-act number “Miss Cuttenclip,” which involved paper dolls. I guess it was a comment on… editors?
The strongest moments are the ones that evoke the enchantment and good humor of Baum’s books.
I love the vaudevillian panache of “On the Same Page,” in which Baum and his longtime illustrator, W.W. Denslow (Wells), sing the joys of collaboration. The three “Not There” numbers suggest the evolution of the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow (Wells again, perfectly wobbly) with ease and inventiveness. And Meckler is irresistible in a role I interpreted as Baum’s muse (her name’s Dorothy), encouraging him to embrace the spirit of Oz again.
Allowing Baum himself more opportunities to revel rather than mope would help.
However, both as written and played (by David Foley, Jr., a strong, stolid presence with a clarion baritone), the writer we meet here suggests a “Bully for you!” Teddy Roosevelt type (complete with mustache and spectacles) more than open-hearted artist. Even if that was Baum’s persona in real life, I wanted to understand more about how he tapped into the imagination that informed his work. His moments of inspiration, mostly portrayed as Baum blankly staring into space — his “daydreams with eyes wide open” — don’t let us into that aspect of his writing life.
Ultimately, Baum comes to terms with the fact that a “grownup novel” won’t cement his legacy, but his tales from the Emerald City. The children who wrote those adoring letters — and he did try to answer every one of them — were telling him that all along.
See Oz at freeFall