Harold Arlen : The Wizard of Oz

Royal Festival Hall

Southbank Centre, 3 August 2008 3.5 stars

Wizard of OzConsidering it opened to largely damning reviews earlier in the week, I was surprised to find how much I actually enjoyed the Royal Festival Hall's summer production of The Wizard of Oz.

Whilst it's not the most profound or brilliant production of a musical I've ever seen, there was much to enjoy, not least the vibrant performances of most of the cast and the brilliant orchestral accompaniment, and the amount of laughter and applause coming from the audience members around me suggested they were having a good time.

Harold Arlen and E Y Harburg's adaptation of Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz for the 1939 movie by MGM is such a cinematic classic that any stage version has a lot to live up to; the St Louis Municipal Opera's 1946 production used some songs from the film, but the RSC's 1988 production reinstated numbers from the film score and created the standard performing version, also used by the Festival Hall here.

Southbank Centre Artistic Director Jude Kelly's new production plays brilliantly on the Freudian dualities of the piece: not only are the characters from Dorothy's journey into Oz familiar as the people she knows from Kansas (the Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow are all played by the same actors as the farmhands in the opening scene), but Kelly and her designer, Michael Vale, make the Oz part of the story take place in sets that resemble the opening on the farm. Dorothy's bedroom is also the cell in the witch's castle where she's imprisoned.

Wizard of OzThis provides focus to the 'home, sweet home' moral of the tale, whose allegoric nature is made deeper, thankfully reducing the story's saccharine mood. The visit to Oz makes Dorothy understand not only that the people she ran away from do love her, but also that they have as many insecurities as she does; little does she understand before then that her slightly gruff Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are actually her fairy godmother and the guardian of the gates to self-knowledge, or that her three grown-up friends on the farm have issues about love, intelligence and courage. In this formulation, the story's rites de passage aspect becomes all the more acute and moving.

On the negative side, above the stage is a constantly-changing projection of images which look like they've been produced by a hyperactive child left in charge of a PowerPoint presentation for an afternoon. The friends see the Emerald City ahead of them, but the squiggles representing it on the screen are so nondescript that one had to wonder what all the excitement was about. Thankfully, I was four rows from the stage and felt completely absorbed with the action whilst ignoring the distracting nonsense going on overhead, but I can imagine that people sitting at the back of the stalls would have had a different experience if their main view was that of this screen. I also had reservations about the Munchkins being played by an insufficient quantity of young children who were not up to singing 'Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead' with enough gusto, and the stage needed to be filled with more people to sing the big production numbers. Nevertheless, lively choreography by Nick Winston, well executed by the ensemble, gave plenty of satisfaction.

Wizard of OzOf the main cast, my only reservation was with Siân Brooke, who seemed too old and knowing to be Dorothy. To me, a sweeter, more compellingly vulnerable actress is needed for the role, and Brooke's voice wasn't up to competing with Judy Garland in 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow', but she is undoubtedly a thoughtful actress and worked hard to communicate the emotion of the character.

Otherwise, pretty much everyone else was brilliantly cast: Gary Wilmot a show-stopping Lion, ex-Royal Ballet member Adam Cooper a catchy tap-dancing Tin Man, Hilton McRae an especially touching Scarecrow, Julie Legrand a brilliantly macabre Wicked Witch of the West, Susannah Fellows a care-worn Aunt Em but sparkly Glinda (the Good Witch), Roy Hudd a charismatic Wizard and Julian Forsyth a comic Uncle Henry/Emerald City Guard. Jonathan Gill paced the score well, bringing out the harmonically dense music in the orchestral interludes to dramatic effect and always accompanying sympathetically; Harold Arlen mixes wistfulness with simple wit in this piece, and the twenty-piece band did him proud.

It's true that Bobby the West Highland terrier almost stole the show as a beautifully-behaved Toto. Yet for me, the evening was enormously fun, and if that's not the point of this kind of entertainment, I don't know what is.

By Dominic McHugh

Previous reviews of musical theatre:
Street Scene
with The Opera Group
Arabian Nights on Sepia Records
The Music Man at the Chichester Festival
Candide
at ENO
Betwixt! The Musical
at the King's Head
My Fair Lady Original Broadway Cast on Naxos
Gypsy on Broadway with Patti Lupone
Funny Girl at the Chichester Festival
Kismet at ENO
On the Town at ENO