The Victorian theatre of spectacle is alive and well, and residing at the London Palladium. But although this adaptation of the Frank Baum book and the 1939 movie, with additional songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, is quite an eyeful, it's somewhat lacking in humanity. I came out feeling blitzkrieged rather than charmed.
The star of the show is undoubtedly the set and costume designer, Robert Jones. The Kansas cyclone that whisks Dorothy into a dreamworld is evoked through vorticist projections (the work of Jon Driscoll) that betoken chaos in the cosmos. The Yellow Brick Road is on a tilted revolve from inside which poppyfields and labyrinthine forest emerge. The Emerald City is full of steeply inclined walls suggesting a drunkard's vision of the Chrysler Building lobby. And the Wicked Witch of the West inhabits a rotating dungeon that might be a Piranesi nightmare.
Not since 19th century Drury Lane melodramas can London have seen anything quite like it; one has to admire the director and co-adaptor, Jeremy Sams, for marshalling the effects. But the story and the people get swamped. Danielle Hope shows a natural, easy presence as Dorothy, but can't hope to compete with the scenery. Even Michael Crawford, playing both Professor Marvel and The Wizard, seems slightly subdued, and misses a trick by not highlighting the latter's resemblance to PT Barnum whom he once played. Only two of the cast transcend the spectacle. Hannah Waddingham makes the Wicked Witch a pointy-chinned ogre who at one point flies over the audience's heads with an elan that Spider Man might envy. David Ganly notches up a first by making the Cowardly Lion explicitly gay and announcing "I'm proud to be a friend of Dorothy."
Of course, there are the songs; it's good to be reminded of such classics as Over The Rainbow, We're Off To See The Wizard, and Follow The Yellow Brick Road. The additions by Lloyd Webber and Rice are also perfectly acceptable. Dorothy is given a good plaintive opening number, and Red Shoes Blues, sung by the Wicked Witch, has a pounding intensity. But, as a film scholar remarked to me, the movie was a story with songs rather than a full-blown musical. That delicate balance has been changed, and an essentially simple fable about the importance of individual worth seems overblown.
I suspect in the end the show will be critic-proof and people will go to see both the winner of the TV talent contest and to luxuriate in the sumptuous visuals. But the paradox of the evening is that it suffers the same dilemma as the Tin Man: it might have been so much more if it only had a heart.
NOTE: Cast changes since this review!
Much-heralded, much-anticipated and much-hyped, one of the world's favourite musical films makes the transition to the stage under the auspices of producer/ composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. Much of the hype surrounding this new version of 'The Wizard of Oz' is thanks to a BBC TV series, 'Over The Rainbow' which sought to find a new Dorothy and Toto for the show. As a result, advanced ticket sales have already reached astronomical levels, almost ensuring a hugely successful production and a lengthy run.
I won't bother to bore anyone with the plot – if you don't know it by now you're probably an alien visitor from an exo-planet or are a pole-squatting hermit who won't be reading this anyway. So let's get down to business with an assessment of the show.
The first thing to note is that this is quite a faithful adaptation, at least of what we're all used to in the film. The evil monkeys still fly around the witch's castle, and the guards there wear similar coats to those in the film. All our favourite songs are included, with the addition of a few composed by Lord Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Tim Rice. Frankly we could easily do without these which add very little to either the exposition or the overall enjoyment.
Danielle Hope, the winner of the TV show 'Over The Rainbow' seems relaxed and confident in the role of Dorothy and her singing voice, though it never approaches the quality of Judy Garland's, is powerful and has a purity of quality that sits well with the character's innocence and naivety. Ms Hope handles the drama effectively too, as well as managing Toto with considerable aplomb. All-in-all, it's a substantial and commendable performance which, though never approaching greatness, has appealing vitality and freshness.
Michael Crawford is The Wizard, but doesn't seem that confident or comfortable in the role. He starts off well-enough, singing a new Lloyd Webber/ Tim Rice song which involves hideously complex lyrics that Mr Crawford deals with perfectly. But in the later scenes, he didn't seem to have the authority that the part needs. Even though the Wizard is a fake, he's a con-man who can convince people of almost anything. But Mr Crawford's Wizard just doesn't have that kind of quality or bearing. In a way, he's too nice and a little bland. Wannah Waddingham, on the other hand, is in exceptional form as the Wicked Witch of the West. Presumably her excellent stint as the witch in 'Into The Woods' prepared her for this part, and she seems to be relishing every evil moment of it.
As with other Lloyd Webber productions, the effects and staging are quite simply stunning. Robert Jones's set and costumes could hardly be better if you had an entire regiment of designers working on them for the rest of the century. The yellow brick road is on a circular revolve with brightly-coloured gardens sprouting from within, and the farm in Kansas, though homely, is shown to be run-down, grey and dismal. This contrasts well with the towering scale of the glitzy-green Emerald City, and the huge industrial pipework inside the Wizard's palace. There's brilliant use of perspective in the scenery which makes the already massive Palladium stage look almost as endless as the prairie.
The twister scene, during which Dorothy and Toto get swept off to The Land of Oz, is created mostly with Jon Driscoll's exceptionally fine projections. Furniture, fence posts and sundry bits and pieces all get swept up inside the tornado as it reeks havoc on the farm. It's actually quite unnerving watching it unfold and is one of the best effects I've seen.
The real star of this show is Toto, Dorothy's dog. Four dogs take on the exhausting and demanding role. Presumably, they have what Mark Twain described as a 'dogmatic gathering' each day to decide who draws the short paw to be dragged behind Dorothy along the yellow brick road. I'm not sure if all the dogs are the same variety – the one I saw was a whitish Westie. Predictably, when Toto makes its first entrance, a wave of maternal 'awwws' spreads round the audience. Toto is pretty cute, but I noticed s/he spent a good deal of time sniffing the stage, and at one point picked up something in its mouth, and then promptly spat it out again after a cursory tasting. A little more rehearsal time might be required, I suspect, especially exploring Toto's naturalistic motivation in the role. At least the dog-star did not relieve itself on Tinman's leg, but it does get substituted during the really scary bits with a stuffed version!
Overall, 'The Wizard of Oz' is actually enormous fun. It never achieves the dizzying heights the film managed to reach in terms of either the quality of performances or the vocals. At the moment, it's clinically efficient but lacks real emotional warmth and that magic ingredient which makes the audience believe they are on the same emotional journey as the characters. Nevertheless, it's an amazing night out – fantastic entertainment for both kids and adults alike.
"It's somewhat lacking in humanity. I came out feeling blitzkrieged rather than charmed...the paradox of the evening is that it suffers the same dilemma as the Tin Man: it might have been so much more if it only had a heart."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Exhilarating new production...Jeremy Sams's production is a marvel of beguiling narrative fluency and, with Richard Jones's superb designs, of endlessly witty and spectacular visual invention."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"The story is lucid and well-paced, though the technological wizardry occasionally obscures its inherent magic...This is a family musical with a gorgeous sense of spectacle, as well as being a polished essay in escapism."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"The dramatic buzz here is not much better than you’d find at a decent pantomime."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"While there is a good deal to recommend about this much-anticipated production...I could not help but imagine director Jeremy Sams himself knocking on the doors of Emerald City to ask the great Oz what ingredients would turn his okay show into a great one. How about a big injection of energy and a dose of feeling..."
Lisa Martland for The Stage
"One leaves the theatre humming the tunes and admiring the spectacle. But this finally strikes me as a soullessly efficient production rather than an inspired re-invention of The Wizard of Oz."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
Photos by Keith Pattison