May 08, 1989 12:00 PM

The Yellow Brick Road is flanked by signs advertising Purina Dog Chow and Downy Fabric Softener. Most of the Munchkins are taller than the Tin Man. The flying monkeys are suspended by visible harnesses and wire, and the dialogue, the music, even the tap dancing, are dubbed and synced. During intermission hawkers sell plastic magic wands and ruby-slipper jewelry. No, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Heck, we’re not even in Hollywood. But never mind. It’s The Wizard of Oz, more or less, it’s live, and it’s coming to an auditorium near you.

For 50 years, audiences have managed to make do with the old Wizard of Oz, filmed by MGM in 1939 with Judy Garland in the lead. But now, though the world may not have been clamoring for it, Los Angeles-based producer Michel Grilikhes has given life to a new Oz—a $5 million stage show that will travel to 70 cities in the next 18 months. Adapted from the screen for “arena” audiences of up to 15,000, The Wizard of Oz Live! features a cast of 40 actors and five dogs who take turns playing Toto. The actors lip-sync the Harold Arlen-E.Y.Harburg songs and mouth much of the dialogue, which they have prerecorded. But Grilikhes, a 65-year-old Mormon who has spent 12 years and $6 million trying to get the show on the road, says that’s okay with his target audience. “People know all the words and lyrics, they know what’s going to happen, and still they love it because it’s been a part of their lives,” he says. “I see it as an opportunity for families to do something together, other than sitting at their television set.”

It’s meant to be G-rated entertainment on a grand scale, with new dance numbers, a computerized stage floor, self-propelled scenery and 112-foot-long sets that get carted around the country by a caravan of eight semi-tractor-trailer trucks. (“It boggles the mind of Broadway people how we pick it up and move it every week,” says Grilikhes.) But at its Radio City premiere in New York City, the Oz extravaganza seemed “to have more glitches than witches,” noted New York writer Michael Musto. Other critics griped about the stage show’s new ending. In the movie Dorothy wakes up in Kansas with a headache and realizes her adventures in Oz have all been a dream. Onstage the other characters gather around Dorothy for one last rousing chorus of “We’re Off to See the Wizard.” (“We changed the ending because we needed a finale,” explains Grilikhes.) But younger viewers, who evidently do not share some grown-ups’ reverence for the original Wizard of Oz, seem satisfied. “I see the movie on my tape every day,” says 3-year-old Shannon Marie Duffy. “I like to see it onstage better. It’s real.”

Grilikhes was 16 when MGM released its version of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book, but he didn’t see it until 1956. That was the year the movie The Wizard of Oz was first broadcast on television, and Grilikhes produced the show for CBS, hiring “Cowardly Lion” Bert Lahr and Liza Minnelli. Judy Garland’s 10-year-old daughter, to be host and hostess. “Judy was playing at New York’s Palace, and every time she’d come offstage, she’d call the control room to see whether Liza was doing all right,” he remembers.

In the next two decades, Grilikhes, who studied directing at the Yale School of Drama, went on to win awards for his television productions, but he came to prefer developing lavish shows for large venues like sports arenas. After scoring a $60 million hit with his worldwide live tour of Disney on Parade in 1976, he began looking for sponsors to bring Oz to the stage. It took more than a decade of negotiating to nail down the financing and the rights. But the disbelievers aren’t calling Grilikhes a rainbow chaser anymore. Ticket sales have been brisk. More than a billion people have seen the movie version of The Wizard of Oz since it was first released, and now many of them are bringing their children, and grandchildren, to see Oz, live, onstage. “People like to renew things that have happy memories for them,” says Grilikhes. And that could mean a pot of gold at the end of the national tour.

—Patricia Freeman, Jess Cagle in New York

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