For those of a certain age, the story of The Wizard of Oz is indelibly etched in the mind as an iconic fantasy film (now 73 years old, yet still timeless), where a monochrome Dorothy discovers life isn’t so bad after all having visited a colourful dream world and confronting her fears through meeting a wide variety of characters – well, that’s my précis. It evokes memories of an innocent childhood when the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred. Therefore, surely a stage musical of this wonderful story created by L Frank Baum would be an equally memorable experience, which was the case, but not for the right reasons.
Of course, a stage version is never going to be able to replicate a medium where anything can be visually represented, but shouldn’t the spectacle of it happening in front of one’s eyes be just as exciting? Well, yes, and from the technical point of view it is. There is novel use of the London Palladium’s famous revolve (now a common feature in many theatres) as the never-ending yellow brick road, with various sets and locations popping up through the centre section and a simple yet effective sepia-set piece representing Kansas bookending the journey to Oz. A gauze onto which projections are displayed worked very well for the digitally enhanced tornado sequence, superimposing the live action, and predictably all of the colours of the rainbow feed the eyes with very bright functional sets and delightful costumes (notably the three companions; scarecrow, tin man and lion).
However, none of this was enough to make the production particularly enjoyable. In the title role, yet another shameless example of a ‘non-actor celebrity’ being cast; in this instance, Des O’Connor. Yes, he can sing to a fashion and is a veteran Palladium performer, but with what can only be described as awful diction and a lame attempt at an accent, he still stumbled over the odd line (a month into his run) and was unable to engage convincingly with his fellow actors. This inappropriate choice was embarrassing to watch despite him having some natural grandpaternal charm… or was it smarm? I wasn’t sure to be honest.
Sophie Evans (runner up in the TV reality programme) playing the pivotal role Dorothy was pleasant enough, but I felt she was largely unenthused. This is still her first professional role, but she already seemed to be on auto-pilot. I suppose the dog has to be mentioned. The collective “ahhhhhhh” from the audience as Toto runs on drowned out a few seconds of dialogue. The dog seemingly had more energy and stage presence than our two leads!
A special mention must go to Marianne Benedict who played Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch of the West. For me, she made this production vibrant. Clearly relishing the ‘baddie’ role, she effortlessly flew around the stage and through the roof, hovering above the Stalls with due menace. She has a tight, shrill voice, but sings beautifully too, and the song with her cronies is, in my mind, the ultimate showstopper.
Likewise, the trio of Dorothy’s companians shine in their own right on their journey to Oz and beyond. They all have excellent comic timing, but Tin Man Edward Baker-Duly’s rich bass voice was gorgeous, Scarecrow Paul Keating’s boundless energy a joy to watch and Lion Martin Callaghan’s deliberately camp portrayal of the obviously gay Lion grabbed all of the best one-liners. I could have sworn it was Simon Russell-Beale in a cat costume.
The ensemble worked hard to fill the stage with some great choreography (by Arlene Phillips) and keep the pace of the show tight, whereas the dialogue scenes drag to the point of tedium. All in all though, a disappointing production which should be rectified by director Jeremy Sams sooner rather than later, otherwise it won’t only be the Wicked Witch melting into the earth.