NEW YORK — 'THE Wizard of Oz' returns to television tonight. But it's not the familiar classic we all know and love.
The cable TV special, which premieres at 8 p.m. E.S.T. (check local listings) on TNT, was recently taped in New York at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall with a cast of contemporary performers.
They include Jackson Browne as the Scarecrow, Natalie Cole as Glinda the Good Witch, Roger Daltrey as the Tin Man, Jewel (Atlantic Records' hot up-and-coming young singer) as Dorothy, Joel Grey as the Wizard, Nathan Lane as the Cowardly Lion, Debra Winger as the Wicked Witch of the West, and The Boys Choir of Harlem as the Munchkins.
The musical production is highly uneven, but there are many delightful moments and an overall feeling of fun pervades. It is lavishly staged, with a full orchestra, sets, and costumes, a fully choreographed production number (''The Jitterbug,'' a song not included in the film), and even a giant balloon (representing Glinda the Witch), which the audience propels toward the stage.
The show, which also includes dramatic passages from the story, showcases the complete, classic score by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Jewel starts things off with a solid rendition of ''Over the Rainbow,'' accompanied by haunting guitar work from Ry Cooder.
Natalie Cole does a gorgeous job on ''You're Out of the Woods,'' accompanied by Dr. John on piano. Roger Daltrey has a smashing time on a rocking version of ''If I Only Had a Heart,'' complete with Who-like arrangements and his trademark microphone swinging.
On the other hand, Jackson Browne sings a pallid, mumbled folk-rock version of ''If I Only Had a Brain'' that barely registers, despite his halfhearted attempts at some Scarecrow-like leaps.
It takes a strong Broadway performer, however, to inject some life into the show. Nathan Lane, who could be considered a modern-day Bert Lahr, is hilarious as the Cowardly Lion, garnering huge laughs with his physical shtick and anachronistic ad -libs.
Other highlights include Phoebe Snow's soulful reprise of ''If I Only Had a Brain'' and Ronnie Spector's rocking ''Hail, Hail, the Witch Is Dead.'' Debra Winger, sounding more than a bit like Bette Midler, has a grand time camping it up as the Wicked Witch.
Produced as a benefit for the Children's Defense Fund, this celebrity concert version of the classic score of ''The Wizard of Oz'' will also be released on both video and audio recordings.
Lending special musical support along with Cooder and Dr. John is saxophonist David Sanborn. Introductions are provided by actress Alfre Woodward and Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund.
* TNT is slated to repeat the show Nov. 26, Dec. 3, 14, 17.