Geoff Ryman’s exquisite 1992 novel Was, which purports to tell the “real story” behind The Wizard of Oz, has been sensitively adapted for the stage by composer Joseph Thalken and librettist Barry Kleinbort as the inaugural production of Northwestern University’s American Music Theatre Project. Ryman’s tricky narrative charts the intersecting journeys of two lost souls: Kansas farm girl Dorothy Gael, a sexually abused orphan whose chance encounters with L. Frank Baum inspire his classic fantasy, and Jonathan Wood, a Hollywood actor dying of AIDS whose fascination with the Oz myth leads him on a quest to comprehend Dorothy’s troubled life–and his own. This brand-new work has flaws: Jonathan needs to appear earlier in the action, and neither his homosexuality nor his advancing illness is credibly portrayed. But the music is gorgeous, and Ryman’s compelling tale is clearly conveyed. Tina Landau’s breathtaking production is beautifully designed and almost flawlessly performed by a company of NU student actors and musicians, with guest star Deanna Dunagan in a stunning turn as the elderly Dorothy, who ends up confined to a mental asylum. Was is probably too dark to match the commercial success of Wicked, but it’s a powerful piece of musical theater. Through 11/13: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2 PM. Northwestern University Theatre and Interpretation Center, Ethel M. Barber Theatre, 1949 Campus Dr. (enter at 30 Arts Circle Dr.), Evanston, 847-491-7282. $10-$22.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Giglio.