The 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz casts a long shadow. Both the movie itself and Judy Garland’s performance are so iconic that any attempts to recreate them are bound to draw comparisons. This new West End staging of the musical actively invites such comparisons, with so much of what’s happening on stage seemingly intended to mirror the MGM film.
On some basic level, Jeremy Sams’ production, which bolsters the original score by Harold Arlen and E Y Harburg with new material by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, comes off rather well. The Kansas scenes look fantastic thanks to designer Rob Jones’ dusty, sparse sets, and some warm lighting which gives them a lovely sepia tone. The tornado scene is brilliantly executed also, with projections, sound and stage effects all working together to create a real sense of chaos and motion. And the new songs, while hardly the ones you leave the theatre humming, are enjoyable enough. There are also some nice twists on existing tracks, such the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion (competently played by Paul Keating, Edward Baker-Duly and David Ganly) singing ‘If we only had a plan…’ when attempting to rescue Dorothy.
Danielle Hope, stepping into metaphorically huge shiny red shoes as the winner of the BBC’s televised talent show, Over the Rainbow, is an engaging and feisty Dorothy Gale, the girl who yearns for a world beyond the rainbow where she’s better understood. Her vocal performance of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ is charmingly un-showy, although she’s left rather isolated on the stage.
There are, in fact, quite a few problems to do with the staging, far more than one would expect for a production which must have plenty of cash behind it. The show is bookended by wonderful sets for Kansas, and a glitzy, art-deco imagining of the Emerald City, but in between the design is often disappointing. The transition from Kansas to Munchkinland should be full of wonder and magic, yet the audience’s first glimpses of a rather gaudy Oz are quite underwhelming, and the decision to have no water (or indeed anything) in the bucket that Dorothy throws over the Wicked Witch of the West (played with considerable glee by Hannah Waddingham) as she melts rather slowly down through a trapdoor is just plain odd. Most strikingly, having the Yellow Brick Road rotate beneath the characters’ feet just gives the impression that they’re not actually getting anywhere.
While you’re in your seat these things don’t seem to matter all that much. The original songs are still a joy and the interplay between the four friends (five if you include Toto) becomes more pleasing at the show goes on. But the issues do crop up on an all-too regular basis, with a heavy-handed line here (‘home’ is one of Professor Marvel’s wonders of the world, sung to Dorothy at the show’s start before she’s had a chance to learn that particular lesson), or a distractingly under-populated poppy field there. The production is enjoyable enough as an experience and Dorothy’s journey holds the attention but there are many problematic, niggling elements to the staging and they soon start to pile up until they’re just too numerous to ignore.