The North Carolina Theatre’s rollicking rendition of The Wizard of Oz, playing July 11-16 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, is a fresh, witty, and altogether wonderful staging of L. Frank Baum’s popular children’s story as adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Kane’s1988 script not only incorporates the Academy Award-winning music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg and background music by Herbert Stothart — but more closely follows the plot — of the classic 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture now owned by Turner Entertainment Co.

Up-and-coming New York director and choreographer Casey Hushion, who is currently assistant director for the 2006 Tony Award® winner for Best Musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, and previously staged gala NCT presentations of The King and I (2004), Jekyll & Hyde (2004), and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (2005), works her own impressive brand of theatrical magic again on the North Carolina Theatre production of The Wizard of Oz. Hushion elicits crisp characterizations from her all-star cast, and devises dynamic dance routines to give new life to the show’s production numbers. She even gets polished performances from the show’s Munchkins, who are mostly second- to sixth-graders, with one 11th-grader doubling as a Flying Monkey and an Ozian.

Eighteen-year-old Jenny Gulley, who previously played high-profile parts in the NCT Kids on Broadway productions of Blood Brothers and tick, tick…BOOM!, is delightful as Kansas farm girl Dorothy Gale, the plucky heroine of Frank Baum’s 1900 fantasy. Gulley not only has the big voice required to make “Over the Rainbow” and its two reprises showstoppers, but she also handles the comic and dramatic aspects of her role with equal aplomb.

Triangle diva Lynda Clark pulls out all the stops in her dual performance as Dorothy’s nemesis in Kansas, the insufferable rich neighbor Miss Gulch, who wants to have Toto put to sleep, because he chased her mean old cat and bit her, and her mortal enemy in Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West, who wants Dorothy dead, so she can reclaim the magical ruby slippers that once belonged to her deceased sister, the Wicked Witch of the East. Both are larger-than-life caricatures, and Clark bites into them with obvious relish — much to the delight of the audience!

Christopher Sloan, David Havasi, and Darren Matthias are remarkably limber and downright hilarious as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, respectively. They imbue Dorothy’s boon companions on the perilous journey down Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City of Oz with plenty of personality; and they sing their signature songs — “If I Only Had a Brain,” “If I Only Had a Heart,” and “If I Only Had the Nerve” — with brio.

Vinny Genna doubles delightfully as Prof. Marvel and the Great Oz; and Heather Patterson-King, who plays Auntie Em and Glinda the Good Witch, and Lamont Wade, who portrays Uncle Henry and the Gatekeeper of Oz, each contribute a pair of sharply etched comic characterizations.

The cute-as-a-button cairn terrier Ashley, a veteran of the Madison Square Garden production of The Wizard of Oz, is a threat to steal every scene in which she appears; and Tom Pacio, Matthew Kirk, and Correy West contribute a nice cameo as three unintimidated Crows who bedevil the Scarecrow.

Although some minor technical difficulties and some rough scene changes (both easily fixable) plagued the opening-night performance of the North Carolina Theatre’s production of The Wizard of Oz on July 8th, the show earned an exuberant and lengthy standing ovation, thanks to inspired musical staging by director/choreographer Casey Hushion and assistant choreographer Sara Hart; animated accompaniment by musical director Edward G. Robinson and the NCT orchestra; and stellar performances by Jenny Gulley, Lynda Clark, and cohorts, with even the smallest players making the most of their all-too-brief moments in the spotlight.

Glorious Technicolor sets and costumes — the former originally designed by John Iacovelli for the Starlight Theatre of Kansas City and the latter leased from AT Jones & Sons, Inc. of Baltimore and brilliantly supplemented by NCT costume designer Ann M. Bruskiewitz — combined with superlative hair, wig, and makeup design by Sarah Opstad and fabulous flying effects by ZFX, Inc. of Las Vegas to make this NCT production of The Wizard of Oz a highlight of the Triangle summer theater season to date. Don’t miss this must-see musical.

The North Carolina Theatre presents The Wizard of Oz Tuesday-Friday, July 11-14, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, July 15, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, July 16, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $25-$70. NCT Box Office: 919/831-69504. North Carolina Theatre: 1988 Royal Shakespeare Company Version: [inactive 6/07]. Internet Movie Database (1939 film): The Wizard of Oz (on DVD):