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Greater London
posted/updated: 03 Oct 2011 -
The Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum, newly produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber
society/company: West End Reviews (professional) (directory)
performance date: 29 Jun 2011
venue: London Palladium, Argyll Street, London
reviewer/s: Paul Johnson (Sardines review)

Here’s a tricky little poser for you...
Which idea do you suppose was born first?

1. The BBC’s fourth reality theatre hunt, for Dorothy, in Over the Rainbow?

2. Adapting MGM’s 1939 musical extravaganza for the 2011 West End stage? have two minutes.

The moral-rich tale of how young Dorothy Gale, in the face of adversity, finds her way back to Kansas from her fantastical trip over the rainbow and the land of Oz, has etched itself into the childhood memories of most of us, I’m sure. Mainly thanks to the groundbreaking screen epic featuring advanced special effects, the magic of Technicolor and, of course, a sixteen-year-old Judy Garland - The Wizard of Oz has today become an annual Yuletide tradition, along with other vintage favourites such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Oliver! – both of which have already stamped their theatrical credentials in front of packed London audiences in recent years.

With the London Palladium seemingly the obvious choice for laying down a 21st-Century Yellow-Brick Road (where the aforementioned flying car thrilled just seven years ago), Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new production is guaranteed to run and run. £10million in advance bookings ahead of its highly anticipated opening last spring was a fitting reward for a dozen weeks of Saturday night TV marketing master-classes.

This production’s critical success, however, teeters on a knife-edge that will prove whether or not the producers really understand their audience. MGM’s musical was so ahead of its time that even seventy-two years on successfully adapting the film for today’s demanding and expectant theatre audiences (and at £65 a ticket, why not) presents not so much a daunting task but a position of high responsibility. I mean, they’re messing with our childhoods here, for goodness sake!

As a spectacle and sheer technical brilliance Robert Jones’ ingenious revolving centrepiece is the focal point of the show, constantly threatening to challenge our star performers for top-billing (except Toto, of course). Made up of three rings – the second of which contains the famed amber cobbles which light up under Dorothy’s feet in true Billie Jean style – it seems there are countless permutations of how scenes could appear from the floor, lift high in the air (e.g. caught up in a twister) tilt and move. However, despite all its technical ability, seeing the Yellow-Brick Road as a circle did seem to sadly lose the magical route’s sense of mystery and infinity, and in turn much of Oz’s vast expanse, portrayed so well on the big screen. (Fancy daring to have a dig at a revolving stage that cost more than the entire 1939 film!)

Other technical wizardry includes Jon Driscoll’s elaborately projected full-stage animations used to great effect especially in the well-executed twister scene – although the constant lowering and raising of the gauze screen/curtain did become slightly distracting as the evening progressed.

Of the performances, how incredibly difficult it must be to bring much if any originality to such well-known characters. BBC’s Over the Rainbow winner, Danielle Hope, has been criticised for not bringing enough warmth and heart to the role of Dorothy. I disagree. The talented (and canine-friendly) Miss Hope did all she could and without doubt deserves her place on the stage (and was a worthy winner of said TV talent show) but under Jeremy Sams’ direction this lavish adaptation has so much packed into it – including five brand-new Lloyd Webber/Rice numbers – and runs at such a pace that acting opportunities are not given much chance to flourish. Indeed the show’s opening scene whipped by so fast the audience were barely given enough time to accustom themselves to the Palladium’s acoustics and immediate Kansas drawl of the Gale’s farm setting, let alone warm to any characterisations.

A re-working of this whole opening sequence could pay dividends – and give Hope’s fine rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow the considered appreciation it deserves. It’s the short straw to deliver such a big number so early on in the preceedings.

In the absence of the queen of the West End, Hannah Waddingham (her night off as The Wicked Witch of the West – and one of the performances I was most looking forward to) it was up to Michael Crawford to bring some stability and experience to the frantic opening; and that he did – his appearance alone triggering spontaneous applause. As the Wizard of Oz himself Crawford brought some delightfully welcomed touches to the character as the seasoned performer obviously enjoyed the versatility which playing four roles offered him. Once or twice there were even threats of a little cameo as we were whisked back to the 70s with the odd “ooooh” from the great man.

Crawford once again proved he has the full arsenal when it comes to musical theatre with his delivery of Bring Me the Broomstick – albeit delivered via Oz’s fire and brimstone video link. Lloyd Webber and Rice’s extra numbers probably deserve their place in the production as the onstage story does a little extra theatrical kick but, as I’ve already mentioned, the dramatic effect/musical balance has become just a tad too one-sided for me.

Other mentions have to go to Dorothy’s brothers-in-arms: Paul Keating’s Scarecrow; Tom Kanavan’s camp Cowardly Lion (usually played by David Ganly); and top honours to Edward Baker-Duly’s brilliant ‘Jim Carrey-esque’ and very funny Tin Man.

I asked a question at the beginning, one answer of which may be considered a little cynical. What’s your verdict? I would ask you this: see if you can guess the next ‘reality’ role/s before the BBC or Sir Andrew announces it (or them)? – Then you may have you answer.
What odds Tony & Maria for West Side Story? ...Maybe I should register the domain
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