For nine years, producer Stuart Oken was the creative power behind Disney Theatricals, shepherding such musicals as “The Lion King” and “Aida” to worldwide success. Now his theatrical tornado of ambition has touched down upon Northwestern University in the form of The American Musical Theatre Project (AMTP), an initiative dedicated to the development of new musicals. Its premiere project, “Was,” based upon the novel of the same name by author Geoff Ryman, is helmed by one the country’s most gifted directors, Tina Landau. But its source material’s narrative and thematic content—a dark reinterpretation of L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” books that spans two generations and is laced with child abuse, psychiatric disorder and terminal illness—has been mostly glossed over, rendering the piece antiseptic and passionless. Landau’s trademark visual flair (uncluttered, balanced and striking imagery), a melodic score with serviceable yet predictable lyrics (“In Was they don’t have names to hurt you/The skies are blue and cares are few/And nothing dies so no one can desert you”) make sure that “Was” looks and sounds like a musical, but it’s in desperate need of a musical stager or choreographer to make it fluidly move like one. (Longtime Landau collaborator and Northwestern alum Jeff Calhoun would be one suggestion.) Right now the first act is sluggish with disposable musical-theater ditties and the second act feels underdeveloped and truncated with an intellectually unsatisfying climax. But this should be taken as feedback rather than criticism for a promising musical that obviously needs more time cooking in the AMTP incubator. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
Barber Theatre, Northwestern University, 30 Arts Circle Drive, (847)491-7282. Wed-Sat 8pm/Sun 2pm, $10 – $25, Through Nov 13.