The purse strings have been greatly loosened in this latest production of the family classic. Giant set pieces tower the stage, vibrant video design forms the backdrop and several stars return to the land of musical theatre but where some performances and decisions manage to glimmer other areas stumble, unable to cast the desired spell in London’s Palladium.
Helmed by the talented Nikolai Foster, this Leicester-born and soon-to-be touring transfer follows the well-trodden yellow brick road featuring the woefully misunderstood Dorothy as she dreams of a better life, far away from her Kansas ranch and cackling neighbours. When a cyclone hits she is transported to the magical land of Oz and is joined by an eclectic company of characters as they seek out the great wizard in the hope he can grant them their wishes and return Dorothy home safely. Guided by the dazzling Glinda the Good, they must assemble all their brains, heart and courage to defeat the green-tinged Wicked Witch of the West and rescue the Ozians from her tyranny.
Foster’s production strays further from the traditional path than the musical’s previous outings it is Colin Richmond’s design that is the star. The bombastic and magnificent set pieces fill the stage with dynamism and style, emanating a delightful retro-inspired style that beautifully links up with Rachel Canny’s marvellous costume design. The yellow brick road is reimagined as glistening walkways that slide around the stage, a nice alternative that will work wonderfully for the touring production and Glinda has been aptly Barbie-field, complete with a bright pink Vespa with helmet to match. Projection design from Douglas O’Connell is ever-present, adding movement that is not possible with physical elements - though initially borders on nauseating. Ben Cracknell is on form once again, injecting eye-catching lighting that makes the set pieces truly pop.
To match this new style of production, some of the music has been reworked and this is where much of the flair evaporates - the “Merry Old Land of Oz” number being a prime example of this, amongst others. The tone has been altered and not for the better. The adaptions are forced and clumsy, the cast themselves barely keeping up as the lyrics are forced through the messy score. There is nothing wrong with evolving a musical for new audiences but when playing with such well-known work, a little more precision is essential. Another imposed change comes in the Tin Man’s “If I Only Had a Brain,” where much of the number has been cut and replaced with a dance break designed for Ashley Banjo to flex his infamous dancing prowess. Impressive as his dancing is, he sticks out uncomfortably amongst his fellow cast members, practically speaking his way through the remaining fragments of the number - a questionable casting choice considering the plethora of musical theatre talent available.
Further celebrity casting arrives with Jason Manford as the Cowardly Lion but thankfully he is charming and as expected, hilarious when stuttering through the big cat’s dialogue. His mannerisms, built on the foundations of Bert Lahr’s glorious work in the 1939 film, are wonderful, desperately left clutching his tail in fear at the slightest sign of danger. Louis Gaunt bumbles around the stage as the Scarecrow in wonderful form, a charming rendition of the straw-filled hero. In the leading role Georgina is fantastic, her Dorothy wide-eyed, daring the universe to send exciting and wondrous things her way and her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” left me with goosebumps - what a star. Another notable performance comes from Christina Bianco as Glinda, permanently armed with her antenna-ed phone, ready to call up the necessary magic with her charm and vocal delivery.
Despite some seriously strong performances and astonishing design work, it was impossible not to feel underwhelmed by this adaption. Dianne Pilkington’s villainous Wicked Witch rarely garnered the stage presence needed to make the character feel threatening (her downfall feeling equally odd and rushed too), and therefore the jeopardy and in turn heart never reached its destined potential. Fantastic work, undone by confusing and unnecessary decisions.
It runs until 3 September. Tickets from £24: here.
Review: Henry Longstaff Photos: Marc Brenner