Sunday, 27 November 2022

REVIEW: The Wizard of Oz at the Curve, Leicester

The Wizard of Oz has had a strange relationship with the theatre. Of all the retellings of L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s novel, the 1939 MGM starring Judy Garland is undoubtedly the best-known and as such, all adaptations will be compared to it. Despite its seemingly large potential, the wondrous world of Oz has often felt stagnant in the theatre and versions have only managed short runs before being relegated to endless performances by schools and amateur dramatic societies.

Just in case the one person on the planet who does not know the plot is reading this...The Wizard of Oz follows a young Kanas farm girl called Dorothy who is whisked off to the magical land of Oz via a cyclone and must follow the yellow brick road to meet the wizard and return home. Along the way, she meets a scarecrow who wants a brain, a Tin Man who longs for a heart and a cowardly lion but also has to face the wrath of the Wicked Witch of the West, who is after her magical Ruby Slippers.

This version – with additional music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice - was first staged in 2011 at the London Palladium and came to fruition through the BBC talent show Over the Rainbow, which sought to find an unknown actress to play Dorothy and was won by then- 18-year-old musical theatre prodigy Danielle Hope, who has gone on to an illustrious career in the arts.

However, despite a promising start in the West End, even that production – which had the benefit of a massive theatre and a huge publicity campaign behind it - closed in 2012 and has not been seen in the UK since – until now.

Esteemed director Nikolai Foster – who has a long history with the Leicester Curve and currently serves as Artistic Director – is at the helm of this year’s Christmas production and it is clear from the start just how determined he has been to transport the magical world of Oz into the somewhat limited space, making heavy use of ambitious video footage and clever graphics throughout, but it is also very clear from the offset that he is wants to do to an Oz that differs from the version everyone knows.

If I Only Had the Part...

Georgina Onuorah – fresh from starring in the West End production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella - is playing the role of Dorothy this time and steamrolls her way through the part with confidence and physical sass in a manner similar to that of Hairspray heroine Tracy Turnblad. A very a stark contrast to the wide-eyed innocence of the legendary Judy Garland but her rendition of the evergreen torch song ‘Over the Rainbow’ was amplified into an almost-too-soon eleven o’clock number and met with rapturous applause.

Casting animals on stage is always a bit of a contentious issue, but in this production, Dorothy’s beloved dog Toto is a puppet expertly operated by Ben Thompson. 

The standout performance of the evening was Jonny Fines; with his physicality and comic timing, he really embodied the character of the brainless Scarecrow and charmed parents and children alike with his rendition of ‘If I Only Had a Brain’, while Giovanni Spano was loveable as the Lion who longed for courage.

Paul French looked every bit the Tin Man who wanted a heart in his very convincing suit but unfortunately decides to play the character as literally heartless, instead of missing a heart, meaning he spits every line and fires off a series of disdain looks throughout the show. A cold and bitter demeanour does not work for a character who has had a heart all along and it renders the Tin Man unlikeable.

Christina Bianco was a sugary sweet Glinda with a voice to match and looked more like a Barbie doll with her hot pink motorbike and matching outfit, while more-than-capable understudy Ellie Mitchell took on the role of the Wicked Witch of the West in place of former ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ star Charlotte Jaconelli – who was indisposed due to illness – as she played a comic yet sultry antagonist who made her cackling entrances and exits also riding on a bicycle.

I’ve a feeling we’re not in Oz anymore...

While the set – designed by Colin Richmond – is no doubt a work of art, it is a million miles away from the Oz most are familiar with and instead resembles a dystopian New York City with metropolis-style junk yards, seeming to echo the Motown musical ‘The Wiz.’

With projections by Douglas O’Connell, Emerald City resembles a high-tech Tokyo with various brands such as ‘Ozney’ and ‘OzBucks – and a sweet but contrived poster of Judy Garland hanging in the middle - glaring loud and proud.

It is almost as if the alarming backdrops are used to compensate for the fact it is impossible to shift the entire world of Oz onto the stage but in being so decidedly unusual it does not allow the audience to actually make the trip with Dorothy and leaves them wondering just where on earth they are.

Ding dong, another song!

The show’s opening number is an Andrew Lloyd Webber original titled ‘Nobody Understands Me’, a rather redundant Irish jig of a tune that is meant to illustrate Dorothy’s frustration that her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are not interested in the potential danger her dog Toto could be in at the hands of Miss Gulch. Following ‘Over the Rainbow’, Dorothy heads off to meet Professor Marvel and they sing another Webber original, the sweet but time-filling ‘Wonders of the World’ before a twister hits and Dorothy is transported to Oz via a technically brilliant sequence brought to life with clever lighting design by Ben Cracknell and the physical performance of actors.

Other additional music numbers include Act One closer ‘Bring Me the Broomstick’, which the Wizard sings to the four friends as he sends them off on a mission to the Witch’s castle. That works fine until you remember that in this production, both witches ride around on bicycles.

In keeping with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s apparent belief that every character must have a song, the Wicked Witch now has a comical anthem called the ‘Red Shoes Blues’ in which she laments about how much she wants the Ruby Slippers from Dorothy. Following her demise and Dorothy’s wish to return home is granted, the audience are treated to a gorgeous rendition of the often underrated ‘Already Home’, both of which were personal highlights.

Somewhere...Near the Rainbow?

This production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Wizard of Oz has the brains of technical wizardry, its heart is in the right place and shows the courage of trying new things but strays so far away from the Yellow Brick Road that we never quite make it to Oz. But nevertheless, it is an ambitious production and a timeless story that always feels right at home at Christmas.

It’s a twister of a show!

The Wizard of Oz runs at the Curve Theatre, Leicester until 8th January, Tickets range from £10 to £34.

Review by Jordan Lloyd Beck

Rating: ★★★ 

Brains, heart, and courage – somewhere. 

Seat: L4 | Price of Ticket: £29

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