Paramount's 'Wizard of Oz' a stunning, soulful spectacle

“The Wizard of Oz” - ★ ★ ★ ★

In staging L. Frank Baum's “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the stakes are stratospheric and the competition is fierce.

For decades, the beloved 1939 MGM film - ranked sixth in the American Film Institute's top 100 movies - was an annual television event. The blockbuster musical “Wicked” - based on Gregory Maguire's back story about Oz pre-Dorothy - marked 15 years on Broadway last month. The first national tour sold out its Chicago run and spawned a sit-down production that played here for more than three years.

Like the Kansas preteen and her devoted traveling companions, we expect a lot from “The Wizard of Oz,” so deeply has the novel and its various incarnations embedded themselves in our collective cultural consciousness.

Happily, Aurora's Paramount Theatre exceeds expectations (despite a misplaced prop opening night) with its visually arresting, warmhearted revival helmed by director/choreographer Amber Mak, who reminds us in subtle and not so subtle ways that this is a tale animated by a young girl's fancies. Using every tool in Paramount's considerable toolbox, Mak and her stellar creative team have crafted a gorgeous, ingeniously designed, female-empowered revival that boasts a superb cast and a robust 14-member orchestra conducted by music director Kory Danielson.

Dorothy (Elizabeth Stenholt) and Toto (Nessa) arrive in a Munchkinland beautifully imagined by co-set designers Kevin Depinet and Christopher Rhoton, lighting designer Greg Hofmann, projection designer Kevan Loney and sound designer Adam Rosenthal for Paramount Theatre's "The Wizard of Oz." Courtesy of Liz Lauren

From the striking lighting and commanding set - which shifts seamlessly from drab homestead to garden-like Munchkinland, through the menacing forest and into the glittering, Emerald-hued Oz to sound that seems to envelop the audience to Theresa Ham's charming and imaginative period costumes to projection designer Kevan Loney's disembodied wizard - Paramount's production dazzles.

The action begins at the Gale family farm framed by the enormous off-kilter slats that dominate co-designer Kevin Depinet and Christopher Rhoton's revolving set. Before long, the muted Kansas backdrop explodes into the vibrant Munchkinland, where giant, brightly hued flowers recall windmills found on middle-America farms. The transformation comes courtesy of the tornado, which sweeps Dorothy up and transports her to a fantasy land. Magnificently conceived by designers Greg Hofman (lighting), Loney (projections) and Adam Rosenthal (sound), it also introduces in an amusing way puppet designer Jesse Mooney-Bullock's darkly imaginative creations, which include flying cows, whirling twisters and a trio of crabby apple trees.

Paramount Theatre's "The Wizard of Oz" is a gorgeous production with inspired design courtesy of director/choreographer Amber Mak's stellar creative team. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

It is here, at the beginning of the yellow brick road, that Dorothy (the winsome Elizabeth Stenholt) begins her hero's journey at the urging of Good Witch Glinda (Harriet Nzinga Plumpp, pretty in pink). With Toto at her side, she sets off to see the wizard (Gene Weygandt, who played the same role in “Wicked” and whose bombast is exceeded only by his intuition).

Along the way, Kyle Adams' spry Scarecrow, Carl Draper's sympathetic Tin Man and Paul-Jordan Jansen's comic yet majestically sung Cowardly Lion join her quest. Opposing this appealing quartet is Caron Buinis' craftily conjured Wicked Witch of the West, who emerges as an angrier, edgier Elphaba. The nicely sinister Buinis also plays the Witch's Kansas counterpart, the dyspeptic, dog-hating Almira Gulch, who's determined to separate Dorothy from Toto (played by Cairn Terriers Nessa and Nigel).

Dorothy (Elizabeth Stenholt), left, prevails over the Wicked Witch of the West (Caron Buinis) in Paramount Theatre's "The Wizard of Oz," directed and choreographed by Amber Mak. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Commanding center stage is Des Plaines native Stenholt, who is every bit an impetuous 12-year-old. Her sweetly sung, convincing Dorothy is an ideal combination of dreaminess and willfulness. The former she beautifully conveys in Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's signature “Over the Rainbow.” The latter the righteously angry Dorothy conveys by lashing out at surrogate parents Auntie Em and Uncle Henry (played with understated warmth by Plumpp and Steve O'Connell).

Dorothy and her companions arrive in the Emerald City in "The Wizard of Oz," running through Jan. 6 at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Those intimate moments revealing this show's beating heart impress as surely as exuberantly staged favorites “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead,” “The Merry Old Land of Oz” and the rollicking “Jitterbug,” a number that was cut from the film.

Ultimately, it's not spectacle alone that makes Paramount's “Wizard of Oz” spectacular. Wisely, Mak ensures visuals and special effects don't overwhelm this very human story and its ever-resonant truths about camaraderie, compassion, love and the fundamental desire for family - the one you're born into and the one you create.

<b>Location:</b> 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, (630) 896-6666 or

<b>Showtimes:</b> 1:30 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday; through Jan. 6. Also 7 p.m. Nov. 27; 1:30 p.m. Dec. 21 and 27; and 1 p.m. Jan. 3. Early curtain Jan. 2 and 3: 1 p.m. matinee and 6 p.m. evening. No show Nov. 23. No 5:30 p.m. show Dec. 23.

<b>Tickets:</b> $36-$69

<b>Running time:</b> About 2 hours 30 minutes, including intermission

<b>Parking:</b> Limited street parking, paid lots nearby

<b>Rating:</b> For all ages, although some scenes may be too frightening for young children

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