For almost 60 years, one of the best known -- and best loved -- melodies in the American songbook has been "Over the Rainbow."
Since Dorothy & Co. followed the Yellow Brick Road into movie history in 1939, the MGM version of "The Wizard of Oz" has been repeated -- "live" -- to the delight of audiences of all ages around the world.
It's not that most audience members don't know what's coming. For a number of years, the film was an annual special event on TV. Then videos and DVDs brought it right into the living room, available for viewing -- and re-viewing -- at any hour.
This accessibility, however, has not stopped audiences from flocking to the stage version, as evidenced by the SRO crowd at the musical's opening night June 11 at the Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre in Warsaw.
The first musical of the 2008 season was directed and choreographed by Scott Michael. Longtime WW choreographer, he proved a worthy successor to the late Roy Hine.
It was all there. The Munchkins, the Winkies, the Lion, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Witches (good and evil), the Wizard and, of course, Toto. Although not resembling the cinematic pup (brown and white rather than black), Flower, the small canine actor, was well-behaved and absolutely adorable, even curling up on Dorothy's skirt during "Rainbow." For "basket time," however, he was replaced by a less flexible model.
The Oz-bound quartet found instant acceptance among the many young members of the audience who did believe even Dorothy's long blonde ringlets. All delivered performances that managed to incorporate the spirit of the film characters while making them their own.
Adrian Aguilar was a nimble and frequently shedding Scarecrow while Brandon Springman creaked beautifully as the Tin Man and Andy Robinson roared ferociously (and wept with abandon) as the Cowardly Lion.
As Dorothy, Annie Fitch displayed sense and spunk and a lovely soprano when faced with the fearsome green visage of the Wicked Witch of the West (Carrie McNulty), who shook her broomstick threateningly and delivered some of the show's most famous lines with an appropriate cackle. She gets major points for balance during her several swift entrances and exits.
As always, Mike Yocum was solid as both Professor Marvel and "the man behind the curtain," whose countenance was ingeniously projected on the circular scrim that surrounded his "throne."
The score in the stage version includes several verses to the "If I Only Had...." song and returns one song cut from the film, "Jitterbug." The bugs, sent as another deterrent to the four, proved that bugs rock!
In fact, the dancing was definitely up to Michael's standards, especially that which filled the "Munchkin Musical Sequence." From the Mayor to the Coroner to the Lollipop and Lullaby Leagues, the 20 young (some very young) actors playing Munchkins were amazing! They knew every move and step of the fairly intricate choreography, which they executed sharply, all the while clearly enunciating every lyric.
Dressed in wonderfully colorful outfits designed and built by WW's costume wizard Martin Chapman-Bowman (and sporting some great floral headgear!), they were an early highlight and well deserved the sustained cheers that followed their segment.
Under the direction of Thomas N. Stirling, the 10-piece orchestra interpreted the familiar score fluidly and blended well. Everything was played on the set designed by Hine for the last trip to Oz.
("The Wizard of Oz" plays at 8 p.m. through Saturday in the theater a 2517 E. Center St., Warsaw. For tickets: 267-8041.)
ANOTHER FAVORITE MUSICAL, albeit with a shorter stage history, has strong ties to Elkhart, which once claimed the title "Band Instrument Capital of the World." It is, of course, Meridith Willson's "The Music Man," on stage at the Amish Acres Round Barn Theatre through July 13.
Going back to the turn of the century, when the music of John Phillip Sousa set everyone's toes tapping, it follows the effects of con artist Harold Hill on the straight-laced residents of River City, Iowa, in his attempt to start a boys' band.
Taking orders for instruments and uniforms while advocating his "think system" method of musicology, Hill (Derek Martin) makes the mistake of getting too close to librarian/piano teacher Marian Paroo (Amber Burgess). As the last train out of town chugs away, Hill finds his foot "stuck in the door" and his life about to change tempo -- from march to waltz.
The production starts on a very high note, with traveling salesmen on an Iowa-bound train debating methods of selling and agreeing that Hill is a detriment to the profession because "He doesn't know the territory."
Bouncing along the rails, "Rock Island" requires excellent rhythm in a number that is spoken rather than sung. It is a real test of the ensemble and they rose to the challenge.
The always-anticipated school board quartet (here played by David Smith, Jeffrey Funaro (great deadpan!), Anthony Easterwood and J.D. Simper) were equally successful in blending their voices for several of the show's best numbers -- "Good Night, Ladies," "Sincere," and "Lida Rose." The counterpoint offered by the ladies ensemble was not as successful.
Burgess has a clear and lovely lyric soprano and is a sensitive actress, but she primarily stands and sings, concert-style, which lessens the dramatic impact of her solos and her character. And there must be a reason for her thin ballet slippers in Act 2, but we were unable to determine why.
For two weeks before returning to Chicago, Joe Ford is playing anvil salesman Charlie Cowell. Catch him if you can.
("The Music Man" plays through July 13 in the theater at 1600 W. Market St., Nappanee. For show times and reservations, call (800) 800-4942, ext. 2, or visit www.AmishAcres.com)