The Wizard of Oz is back gracing our collective national stages in a brand new, but classically traditional production of one of music theatre’s most loved stories and scores. This bright and breezy production from Andrew Lloyd Webber has some fresh and welcome changes to the original book, including adaptations by him and the production’s director, Jeremy Sams, adding dialogue and depth to help flesh out some of the characters.
Additionally, Lloyd Webber, working with his long-term lyricist and collaborator Tim Rice, has written eight new songs for the work, giving voice to the witches as well as the Wizard and Professor Marvel. The result is a clever and subtle blending of original and new, the introduced songs not intrusive but rather integrated in a respectful melange that works well. Particularly memorable is the Wicked Witch of the West’s song Red Shoe Blues with some delicious lyrics from Rice that cleverly rhyme words such as ‘clueless’ with ‘shoeless’ to great effect. The Wizard’s Bring me the Broomstick that closes Act 1 is also a powerful addition to the score, while the sentimentality of the finale Home is a Place in Your Heart sung by Dorothy, Glinda and the ensemble firmly reinforces Dorothy’s famous closing line, “there is no place like home”.
The production is exquisitely and carefully designed, both faithful to the film yet well adapted for the stage. The opening sepia-toned prairie setting of Kansas with its storm and ‘twister’ effects is well realised in Robert Jones’ production design, alongside exciting filmic projections from Jon Driscoll. The stage changes dramatically when the story moves to Oz, with sepia replaced by magical primary colours that include huge paper flowers, the yellow brick road, an ever-present rainbow, and wonderful costume creations for the chorus of munchkins in blue, the people of Oz in shades of green, and the winkies of the Wicked Witch in red and black. These ensemble scenes are enhanced by Hugh Vanstone’s impressive and powerful lighting.
Visually the yellow brick road scenes where Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion are a highlight – leading first into the splendour of the Emerald City and later into the dark twisted castle of the Wicked Witch. Driscoll’s projections reach a zenith in the storm and forest scenes, introducing astonishing video elements by Daniel Brodie. Dramatically the scene where the winkies capture Dorothy is technically very strong, integrating projections with live performers to great effect.
Sams and choreographer Arlene Phillips, create some terrific stage pictures with great attention to detail in the characterisation. The ensemble is first-rate, and deserves much praise for its physical attributes as munchkins, giving their characters a distinctive and believable identity.
Anthony Warlow is splendid in two beautifully crafted cameos as Professor Marvel and the Wizard, his newly-written song Wonders of the World perfectly delivered. He is a consummate performer and adds great strength to this production – in fact, it is a a pity he doesn’t have more to do or sing.
Repeating roles that made them famous in the other Wizard of Oz story, Wicked, Lucy Durack as Glinda the Good and Jemma Rix as the Wicked Witch of the West are both fabulous. It is a neat pairing of two wonderful performers both with fantastic voices and a marvellous presence on stage. Glinda’s sweet and sickly ‘goodness’ is here replaced with some updated dialogue that helps round out her character, introducing a street-wise wit more in keeping with the role in Wicked. Jemma Rix plays evil for all it is worth and sings the pants off Red Shoes Blues, emulating a very fine filmic death as she melts.
Great fun is had with the characterisations of the Scarecrow of Eli Cooper, whose costume, demeanour and voice are just right alongside the bravado and strong vocals of the Tin Man of Alex Rathgeber and the gorgeous Lion of John Xintavelonis. The latter gleefully enjoys introduces contemporary comments such as “lion in winter” and “the lion sleeps tonight” as well as being “a friend of Dorothy”, which raises much laughter.
Samantha Dodemaide’s Dorothy is a somewhat older and certainly taller heroine than we have probably seen before. Physically, this makes it difficult to accept her childish concerns for her dog Toto in the opening Kansas scene, not helped by the breathless rushing of the new song, Nobody Understands Me – probably the least successful of the Lloyd Webber/Rice additions to the score. Opening night nerves may also have resulted in the over-produced and affected rendition of Somewhere over the Rainbow when a simple, pure reading would have been so much more moving. But Dodemaide is a fine actress and dancer and can sing and, once she left Kansas and arrived in Oz, things seemed to calm down. In the second Act her warmth and charm won us over while her final shortened Somewhere over the Rainbow had all the simplicity lacking in the opening number. She is clearly a talent to watch.
All in all, this is a well-crafted, visually stunning and almost totally traditional production of a tried-and-true favourite with some nice new touches and the added luxury of three marvellous artists in cameo roles – Warlow, Rix and Durack. They bring the skills and gravitas to make this a worthwhile and enjoyable evening in the theatre.
The Wizard of Oz plays at QPAC until late December, then plays at Sydney’s Capital Theatre from 30 December 2017, with Adelaide and Melbourne seasons to follow in 2018