Yes, there’s a dog in The Wizard of Oz.
He scampers about, gets carried a lot, and (on the night I was there) doesn’t take a shit on the stage. That’s the first and last mention of the Westie (one of four) who ‘plays’ Toto, and is apparently the only thing many other critics focused on. It’s quite amazing how they managed to ignore the rest of the show and the cast, and churn out 500 words on a dog. They’re really giving their readers what they want.
The Wizard of Oz has never been a particularly popular stage show over here, but when Andrew Lloyd Webber picked the L. Frank Baum classic as the subject of his new TV talent search, it was obvious that popularity would soon soar.
Like previous TV casting sessions for Oliver!, Joseph and The Sound of Music, the hunt for Dorothy on BBC1 gave the musical an audience outside normal theatre fans, and for that reason attention on The Wizard of Oz and its lead is significantly greater than it is for other new productions.
However, The Wizard of Oz 2011 rises to the challenge admirably, and only the coldest-hearted of critics could fail to find something to love here. A not inconsiderable amount of the success lies with the creative team’s decision to not attempt to replicate the 1939 film wholesale, regardless of how much it upsets Oz-purists.
Director Jeremy Sams has assembled a cast who (for the most part) have created characters which are quite distinct from traditional interpretations.
Northern ingenue Danielle Hope has revitalised Dorothy, and although she is always going to be compared to Judy Garland, she holds her own; the youngster retains the gentle yet powerful vocals she displayed during the audition process. However – through no fault of her own – her performance of Over The Rainbow is a tad anti-climactic; Lloyd Webber’s score downplays the big note at the end of the song, and deprives Danielle Hope of her chance to show her naysayers exactly what this new West End star can do. That said, her acting alone should be enough to silence most critics. Sweetly strong, with a natural, easy presence, Danielle Hope’s Dorothy is as good as anyone could have wished for.
Edward Baker-Duly rids the Tin Man of the easygoing nice-guy schtick he has been lumbered with for decades and instead imbues him with the attitude of an off-duty superhero, throwing in deadpan humour and martial-arts stances. He is matched by the Cowardly Lion (David Ganly) who has dispensed with the overdone “Pud ‘em up, pud ‘em up” character with the voice of a backward farmhand we’ve seen in a hundred am-dram productions in favour of a slightly more realistic character… or, at least, as realistic as a talking Lion in a fantasy world can be. He’s funny too, with jokes about A Lion In Winter and being a proud friend of Dorothy doing much to enamour him to the adults in the audience.
The witches bring with them echoes of Wicked. Glinda the good witch (Emily Tierney) is more tits-and-teeth than you remembered and has a nice line in false friendliness, while the Wicked Witch’s intelligence and humour is pushed to the forefront. It’s a nice touch, and one that is much needed if The Wizard of Oz is going to be relevant to a 21st Century audience.
The Wicked Witch is played with huge gusto by Hannah Waddingham (pictured, right), who gets some of the best lines in the show, and definitely the best of the new songs; a stomping number called Red Shoes Blues. Lloyd Webber has teamed up with Tim Rice to add a few songs to those already made famous by the movie, and while they are perfectly serviceable, it’s hard to see any entering the pantheon of classic showtunes.
Two of these new songs are given to Michael Crawford who plays the Wizard/Professor Marvel, which is just as well, because without them he’d be hard to notice. Perhaps his recent illness has something to do with it, but West End legend Crawford is underpowered and distinctly uncharismatic.
While we’re on the subject of disappointments, the flying monkeys have to come in for some criticism. Unlike Wicked, where the freakish creatures flood the stage, here we get one flying (well, dangling) monkey and two who walk about a bit. They look freaky enough, but just not particularly scary, and they hardly fill you with fear for Dorothy and her friends.
The same, however, can’t be said of the twister that hits Dorothy’s home. Across the board, the technology and design on display in The Wizard of Oz is just incredible. With the smart use of projection, the tornado devours the entire stage and sucks in the audience in a way that rivals 3D cinema.
Director Jeremy Sams and designer Richard Jones have created a visual masterpiece that makes the most of modern stage technology and the Palladium’s revolve. Every penny they spent is there for all to see. Seriously, this is a very, very good-looking show. Like the film, as the story moves from Kansas to Oz, the washed-out sepia tones are transformed into an intense technicolour explosion with pieces of set rising and falling and appearing from nowhere thanks to the hydraulic, tilted revolve. When the Wicked Witch’s spindly, Gothic castle grows from the centre of the stage, it’s simply jaw-dropping.
Those who dislike The Wizard of Oz aren’t going to find anything here to change their minds, but for those of us with souls, it’s a mightily impressive production.
Ignore the joyless critics who delivered po-faced verdicts on something they didn’t want to watch in the first place, this is the West End at its very best.
Buy Wizard of Oz tickets.