Review by Daz Gale
In recent years, the legendary London Palladium has opened its doors for a big musical to move in over the summer. Previous years featured Beauty and the Beast and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. This year is no exception, with a musical adaptation of one of the most iconic movies of all time calling this place its home for the summer. But would this production make me melt?
Based on L Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, The Wizard Of Oz is best known for its generation-defying 1939 movie starring Judy Garland, of which we all grew up with. The musical adaptation premiered in the West End in 2011, following a TV series searching for Dorothy. This latest production was first seen at Leicester Curve last year and now spends a summer in London ahead of a UK tour beginning later this year.
Surely everyone knows the basic story of The Wizard of Oz but for anyone who has been living over the rainbow for the past 84 years, it tells the story of Dorothy Gale (no relation) who, following a bizarre twister of fate, finds herself in a strange new world. Of course she does what any rational person would do and immediately commits a murder. Clearly getting a taste for it, she decides to kill again – all the while stealing a dead woman’s shoes. There’s a chance my love for Wicked may have left me rooting for the wrong person…
The classic story has been adapted by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams, retaining the essence of the story while updating and modernising it. The use of technology in Oz creates a more futuristic setting than in the movie when compared to the plain nature of everything in Kansas – this productions equivalent of the iconic black and white into colour transition the movie is famous for. Other elements have been tweaked, added and amended, including a much different reaction to Dorothy telling her friends which one of them she’ll miss the most. At times, the story may feel a little more disjointed but that may be because the original movie is so well imprinted in everybody’s memory, any slight differences can immediately feel strange. The fact they work well for the most part is a testament to the quality of it.
The songs everybody knows and loves from the movie are mostly present with Harold Arlen’s and E.Y Harburg’s score still soaring all these years later. ‘Ding” Dong! The Witch Is Dead’, ‘We’re Off To See The Wizard’ and ‘If I Only Had A Brain’ all sound completely joyous. The newer songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have a tough job to sit seamlessly alongside such well-regarded numbers and there are moments where they don’t always rise to the occasion, but there are a handful of brilliant newer songs here as well. The Wicked Witch of the Wests ‘Red Shoes Blue’ gives her her own Elphaba moment while closing number ‘Already Home’ is a stunning highlight. Of course, there is one song everybody is waiting for in The Wizard Of Oz and they don’t have to wait too long as ‘Over The Rainbow’ is an early highlight, sounding as beautiful as ever, particularly when performed by an actress as incredible as Georgina Onuorah.
Nikolai Fosters direction brilliantly transforms the settings in clever fashion, bringing something new to the shows more memorable moments and scenes while bringing with it a sense of familiarity. Highlights include Elpha… I mean the Wicked Witch of the Wests demise and the transitions that brings Dorothy to Oz and back to Kansas. Nikolai has a lot to play with when it comes to direction as the design elements are so exquisite in themselves.
A truly glorious set design by Colin Richmond sets the tone perfectly with a changing proscenium arch and an impressive use of video screens providing a high-tech and always visually glorious backdrop. Douglas O’Connell’s video design is a work of art – whether it is a heavily detailed background, a sweeping pan of the settings to create a sense of travel or the transition sequences from one world to another, there is a great sense of creativity here which plays out beautifully. Perhaps the only slight negative I can say around this is there does tend to be an over-reliance on the use of video, meaning the looming Palladium stage can feel slightly sparse at times. While there are still some great set pieces, at times I would have liked a bit more to be seen on the stage.
Equally impressive design elements are Ben Cracknell’s often innovative and extremely versatile lighting which extends well past the stage and into the audience, and Adam Fisher’s clever use of sound design, particularly when accompanying video sequences on the stage. Shay Barclays choreography fills some of the aforementioned gaps in the stage with precise movement, now given the extra challenge of having a known dancer in Ashley Banjo to work with.
Speaking of, it’s time to talk about the cast. Georgina Onuorah reprises her role as Dorothy from last years production in Leicester. Stepping in to the ruby slippers of Judy Garland may not be the easiest of tasks but Georgina manages to make the role her own while at times giving the odd nod to Judy;s memorable portrayal. An incredible talent, Georgina gives a sweet yet confident performance, showcasing her phenomenal vocals and ability to command the stage through a deep understanding of the role. Her ability to connect with every performer around it, be it friend or foe, makes her performance mesmerising to witness. Following her time in Oklahoma! This is another example of why Georgina is bound to be a huge star in the years to come.
Ashley Banjo may be no stranger to the Palladium stage, having played there with Diversity – but never in a musical role. As the Tin Man, he brings a lot of rhythm to the role, giving an overall decent performance – though his acting may be a tad rusty at times, he wins everyone over with a performance full of heart. Louis Gaunt is a highlight as Scarecrow proving himself to be a real triple threat with impeccable singing, dancing and acting. In a role that can be both comedic and more serious at times, Louis clearly has a brain for what works, being in tune with his performance. Dorothy’s trio of friends are completed by Jason Manford courageously taking the stage as the Cowardly Lion. Hilarious and refreshingly familiar, he is an absolute standout in a role which perfectly plays to all his many talents.
Christina Bianco reprises her role as Glinda. While she may not come and go by bubble, instead opting to travel by vespa (as you do), she gives a glorious performance in a role that is small but sweet, Getting a chance to showcase her ridiculously remarkable vocal abilities, she left me longing to see more from her witch. No stranger to playing witches in musicals, Dianne Pilkington swaps good to wicked as she gives a fabulously camp yet fantastically considered portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West. Clearly having the time of her life in the role, she is a joy to witness – so much so, I found myself rooting for her (though again, that may come down to my love of Wicked). Though her appearances were fleeting, whenever she is on the stage she had the ability to steal the scene and once again proved why she is one of the greatest talents the West End has to offer.
The main cast are completed by Gary Wilmot swapping his role as The Wizard of Oz in Wicked to, erm… The Wizard of Oz. He may be reduced to not much more than an extended cameo but boy does he make the most of it. A special mention has to go to Ben Thompson who takes on the role of Dorothy’s little dog Toto brilliantly blending the balance between keeping invisible so we feel the dog is real while making his own presence and talents as a puppeteer known.
To go back to the design element of this show, the Easter eggs that are hidden in the video design are an absolute joy to watch. As it pans across a backdrop that resembles an Ozmopolitan Times Square, many brand are given the Oz twist in a brilliant sight gag. However, it is the use of musical theatre references that really made my smile stretch so wide, I thought there might be a pot of gold at the end of it. Whether it is original cast members from the movie being honoured, other musicals from the world of Oz or other Broadway musicals in general, there was plenty to keep you entertained in a sequence so well crafted and meticulously thought out, it can only be admired. The cleverest use of this has to be Margaret Hamilton – the name of the actress who played the Wicked Witch in the movie with the character now adorning a Hamilton poster. Standing ovation for whoever came up with that one.
Taking on such a classic story like The Wizard Of Oz will always leave you open to comparison, which perhaps isn’t necessarily fair. Nonetheless, this production of the musical takes a classic story and does something new with it. Technically impressive with some amazing design elements and a truly wonderful cast, there is much to love about this production. While it can feel discernibly panto-esque at times, there really isn’t anything wrong with that. Playing up the camp to create a feel-good show that is fun for all the family, it went to prove there really is no place like theatre.
The Wizard Of Oz plays at the London Palladium until 3rd September. Tickets from https://lwtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/the-wizard-of-oz/
Photos by Marc Brenner