It takes a brave person to stage The Wizard of Oz. When the 1939 film is nigh on perfect, a director must choose between presenting a pastiche of what was achieved a full seventy years ago, or doing something else, something new, which in all likelihood will prove to be ‘not as good as the movie.’
Given this dilemma, director, Jude Kellys approach, one of respecting the original but not being overly reverential, was reasonably successful. This was evident in the two-tier set design where the dull advertising billboards on the upper level were torn down the middle by a giant screen, signifying the films own transition from black and white to glorious Technicolour.
The early scenes were also strong despite the fact that Sian Brookes Kansas accent as Dorothy initially appeared too abrasive. Her singing voice in Over the Rainbow sounded too similar in tone to her speaking voice to enable the song to have maximum impact. Nevertheless, she soon overcame both problems to deliver a superb performance over the evening, especially in capturing a young girls mannerisms and sense of wonder.
L Frank Baum’s stories were first staged in 1902 in Chicago (a Broadway run would follow) and have been seen on stage in various forms ever since. This musical version, adapted by John Kane from the Warner Bros movie and with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and EY Harburg, was premiered in 1987 by the RSC and contains elements absent in the film version (and at nearly three hours it is a long slog). In particular, it better explores the parallels between the characters of the farm hands at the start and those of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion later on. It also gave the songs that introduced these latter three characters an added dimension, by having one supported by three all-singing, all-dancing trees, and another by (black-suited and beak-less) crows. Their movement and chatter in the Scarecrows song was a real highlight of the evening.
Michael Vale’s design on the other hand was something of a let down. After Dorothy lands in Oz, the backdrop of oddly childlike drawings projected onto the wall seemed rather misjudged, especially that of the Emerald City, and nor did things improve when the quartet entered its gates. There, all that suggested a magical, but ultimately hollow, city were a few billboards advertising Barnum and Bailey.
Kelly’s production was also rather flabby at times. In the film, there is a tight scene in which Dorothy is sent into a trance in a field of poppies, but in the show this sequence was much longer and led to a rather overblown and underwhelming march to Oz at the end of the first half. Some might say it is undesirable to keep comparing the show to the film, but this, to me, is both natural and ultimately right. The film is iconic, one of the best ever made, and it is impossible to view this without comparing on some level.
And, for all of its weaker moments, the show still had many strong performances. Hilton McRae, Adam Cooper and Gary Wilmot had a nice rapport as the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, whilst Roy Hudd was ideally suited to the title role. The ensemble danced their way through the numbers with both panache and technical precision, and it was a sweet – if rather panto-ish – touch having children playing the Munchkins.
The real star of the show, for me however, was Dorothys dog, Toto (played by a terrier named Bobby who has already achieved fame in the film, The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby.) With quite considerable demands placed upon him, he behaved impeccably throughout the musical, and his intelligent face drew cries of joy from the audience as he appeared genuinely to understand everything that was going on around him.
So, while it is far from perfect, this Wizard is still an ideal show for the summer. In truth, you might best enjoy it by leaving your critical hat at home, but for anyone who finds this impossible to do, there is still much to delight in. Indeed, when all is said and done, only the coldest of hearts could fail to be won over by this show.