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The Wizard of Oz

 

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By L. Frank Baum


Directed by Jude Kelly


Designed by Michael Vale


Musical Direction by Jonathan Gill
Choreography by Nick Winston
Lighting Design by Mike Gunning
Visual installation by Huntley Muir
Music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y Harburg
Background music by Herbert Stothart
Dance and vocal arrangement by Peter Howard
Orchestration by Larry Wilcox
Adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company

Based upon the Classical Motion Picture owned by Turner Entertainment Co.
and distributed in all media by Warner Bros.

 

Royal Festival Hall


Southbank Centre


23 July – 31 August, 2008


 

THE IMPOSTERSary Couzens

A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

Who among us hasn’t thrilled to the strains of ‘We’re off to see the Wizard,’ or ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ at one time or another, in our childhoods, and/or thereafter when revisiting old cinematic favourites?  The definitive Hollywood film of L. Frank Baum’s oddly surreal novel, released in 1939, starring sixteen year old Judy Garland would probably have won a bushel full of Oscars were it not for the fact that David O. Selznick’s hugely hyped, similarly definitive film version of popular Civil War epic Gone With the Wind, starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh swept the boards at the awards ceremony that year.


Trying to recreate a feeling and sense of Dorothy Gale’s depression era Kansas, diminutive Munchkin Land with its good and bad witches and peculiarly endearing characters, and the beloved Emerald City of Oz with its wonderful wizard for the stage would seem to be an impossible task. In some cases, this production doesn’t even come close to fulfilling that improbable dream. At other times, however, its shining good nature, like a sunbeam peeping from beneath a rain cloud, comes bravely smiling through.


For those who may have been cave dwelling through the decades, suffice it to say that The Wizard of Oz is the allegedly wise whom fellow Dorothy Gale, and her little dog Toto too, must go and see after her family’s house gets caught up in a Kansas twister and lands on, and annihilates, the Wicked Witch of the East, incurring the ugly, wart-nosed wrath of her green skinned sister, the Wicked Witch of the West. More than anything else, short of escaping being turned into a flying monkey by her new nemesis, Dorothy wants to go home. The only person who can help her do that, Glenda, the Good Witch of the North assures her, is the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. However, as the only way to get to Oz is to walk, Dorothy sets off to ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road.’ Along the way, she befriends a philosophising Scarecrow, who wishes for a brain, a romanticising Tin Man, in search of a heart and a Cowardly Lion who longs to reclaim his title as ‘King of the Forest,’ by acquiring some much needed courage.


The pre-show stage setting for this production looked very promising, with huge depression era type, peeling adverts flanking a blackboard looking scrawl with the show’s title at its centre. Rusty looking ladders and wheels old telephone poles, staggered in size to create a vanishing point, and old farming tools were strewn across the sides of the stage. As the orchestra tuned up, teasing the crowd with fragments of ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Yellow Brick Road,’ I accessed the crowd. Loads of Japanese tourists down front, lots of children, hoards of beer drinking twenty and thirty somethings, couples of all descriptions, single OAPs – in short, a cross section of humanity, and not a single, ‘Surrender Dorothy’ T-shirt in sight! As the orchestra began to play the beloved overture beginning with ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, the centre portion of the backdrop featured familiar images from thirties American popular culture, nowadays known as the icons of consumerism – cars, movie stars, and the like, all in larger than life Technicolor, an ingenious nod to the way the black and white dustbowl of Dorothy’s Kansas was magically transformed into the gorgeously colour saturated land ‘beyond the moon, beyond the rain…’


When Dorothy, in the guise of Sian Brooke (shouldn’t it be the other way round?) arrived on stage, breathlessly exclaiming to her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, (the excellent Susannah Fellows and Julian Forsyth), that Miss Gulch was again dogging Toto, my first impression was that Brooke was far too old to be playing a teenager.  Good acting can overcome such factors, and great acting can even make you forget about things like age. Adequate acting, however, can only keep pace with the very facts that it hopes to overcome, occasionally allowing glimpses of what might have been. Unfortunately, between Brooke’s decidedly correct, Queen’s English pronunciation of her dog Toto’s name, with clear emphasis on both ‘t’s’, instead of the more American pronunciation, ‘Todo’, and her artificial sounding fretting and fears, in her over-obvious attempts to mimic Garland’s speech patterns, in the majority of her scenes, she tended to melt the tone down to that of a panto. However, through her singing, Brooke managed to redeem herself, as she sounded sufficiently girlish for a certain level of credibility to be momentarily restored. Perhaps if her performance had been merely inspired by Garland’s one, rather than modelled on it, her portrayal might have been more believable. Scenes with the marvellously credible Roy Hudd in his dual roles as Professor Marvel travelling psychic and the Wizard of Oz, were the only real exceptions to Brooke’s understandable quagmire, as the two played off one another admirably.


Julie Legrand, who made a convincing Miss Gulch, simply because she played the role ‘straight,’ obviously revelled so much in her other, more pivotal role as the Wicked Witch of the West, that she, unfortunately, tended to reduce its credulity down to nothingness, so much so that audience members could be heard hissing at her a la panto once they realised the actress was playing with her role, rather than playing it. Legrand cannot really be blamed for entirely, as such choices are generally down to the director. Perhaps Jude Kelly, who valiantly directed this obviously, challenging production, was of two minds in this instance. 


Thankfully though, it seems as though inspiration is what the most credible players in this production took from their cinematic predecessors, rather than attempt generally impossible recreations or lapse into panto mode. The totally convincing Roy Hudd deserves another mention here, as he played both the travelling con-man Prof. Marvel, though and the wonderful Wizard of Oz, as though he really was those characters.  Hudd made an excellent wizard - all bluster and no prattle, all shakes and no metal. His admission to Brooke as Dorothy that ‘I’m a Kansas man myself’ seemed just as smile-worthy as everything else he said, as he acted via his body language in conjunction with his words, and it was pleasure to watch someone so thoroughly engaged in his work onstage that he made it believable for his audience. Hudd is living proof in this production that actors can make fantasy credible!


The same applies to those playing Dorothy’s erstwhile companions: Adam Cooper, Hilton McRae and Gary Wilmot, as the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion respectively. Each of these actors was very enjoyable to watch, and each of these three players also took on the role of farmhands, Hickory, Hunk and Zeke and were great fun to watch in these roles as well. Their songs, ‘If I Only Had a Brain,’ ‘If I Only Had a Heart’ and ‘If I Only Had the Nerve’, were performed with a great sense of fairytale fun and appreciation of those who’d enacted the roles before them. Wilmot, who seemed to be enjoying himself to the max, had an additional number to perform, the humorous, ‘If I Were King of the Forest,’ which he quite literally threw himself into. Julian Forsyth, who also plays Dorothy’s wryly credible Uncle Henry, plays a Monty Pythonesque guard at the gates to the Emerald City. Another one of the scene stealers in this production was Bobby, the West Highland Terrier who plays Toto, as he was so well behaved and cuddly looking, you just wanted to go up and give him a doggie biscuit and pat him on the head! In real life, five and half year old Bobby belongs to Gerry Cott, who with Bob Geldof, founded The Boomtown Rats. When the main characters paraded down the centre aisle on their way to the stage following the interval, several people reached out from their seats in an attempt to pat the stocky little dog.


Dorothy’s arrival in Munchkin Land was one of the most charming and enjoyable scenes of the production, thanks to the childish exuberance of the youngsters from Lambeth Music Services and Lauriston Primary School, Hackney playing them, who enthusiastically performed and sang ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ and ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ along with Dorothy and Glenda, (good) Witch of the North, well played by Susannah Fellows, who also plays Auntie Em. Various scenes in which characters utilised the aisles, making the audience feel part of the action, were understandably popular ones, with the Scarecrow momentarily landing in someone’s lap on his way to the stage on his wobbly, straw filled legs in one instance.


At the risk of sounding like the perpetually carping Miss Gulch, two last complaints are in order here, the first in regard to and what was being shown on the aforementioned projection screen most of the time.  After a very promising start at the opening of the production, a series of extremely babyfied images of flowers, words, numbers, big bold stripes and colours, which, might be fascinating to some pre-school aged toddlers, (kids tend to be very sophisticated these days) often competed with what was on stage, especially when they were animated, as the animations tended to be very busy. When Dorothy finally arrives at the Emerald City, for example, an image of the Emerald City itself (as depicted on the front of the programme) as backdrop would might been more magical than a childish lines suggesting it, on a mud brown backdrop, all round and could have actually heightened the sense of anticipation. The animations and drawings employed, which may have had a certain charm in and of themselves, when used in conjunction with the live action, had a tendency to make one lose interest in both. Last, but not least, the makeup, which was generally very good, let illusions down on a couple of occasions, in regard to the Wicked Witch and the Tin Woodman in that both actors playing those characters clearly had pink skin showing on their necks where the makeup green and silver in these cases, didn’t cover them low enough, allowing their ‘humaness’ to show through.


Come to think of it, the set, designed by Michael Vale was a bit odd too, as it allowed little scope for either drama, or illusion, as spotlights added colour to what looked like a couple of pieces of corrugated tin, posing as the gates to the Emerald City. His unravelling ‘yellow brick road’ was a neat trick however as it enabled the characters to walk and be hurried along conveyor belt style as they did so, conveying distance.


Otherwise, the production boasted sweeping orchestration, doing its marvellous score great justice under the capable musical direction of Jonathan Gill, along with some fine dancing and singing, as arranged by Peter Howard. Great costumes after their film versions, from Dorothy’s blue and white gingham dress, baby blue ankle socks and ruby slippers, to original Witch of the West Margaret Hamilton’s black Halloween template ensemble also enlivened proceedings and added a sense of cinematic authenticity to the show’s fantasy landscape.


This production of The Wizard of Oz may well prove to be an enjoyable one, particularly for those with young children, but for me, despite its obvious merits, it was not one to go over the rainbow about.

 


Booking online at www.southbankcentre.co.uk
or from Southbank Centre Ticket Office on 0871 663 2584.

£50, £40, £32, £25, £18, £12
Concessions: 50% off (limited availability)
Group Rates are available

 

 

 

 

 

 

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