If ever a Wiz there was, the Wizard of Oz is one
The Wizard of Oz
by Cary Gee
Friday, March 11th, 2011
I’ve never been a particular fan of Dorothy – all that gingham and mawkish sentimentality – and had until recently gone through life with the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz as my only reference point. Then with the suddenness of the twister that transports Dorothy to Oz, along came two stage versions in as many weeks. The first, an excellent production full of warmth and wit at St Birinus’ School in Didcot, did much to soften my resistance to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new West End spectacular. And there really is no other word for a production that sees the noble lord reunited with Michael Crawford, who plays a brace of roles, including the Wizard, choreographer Arlene Philips and lyricist Tim Rice, with whom Lloyd Webber has padded the score with a clutch of mostly forgettable new songs.
Much attention has been directed at Danielle Hope, who beat 9,000 other girls to win the part of Dorothy in reality television show Somewhere Over the Rainbow. She begins competently enough in a sepia hued Kansas, maintaining a convincing accent throughout, both when delivering her lines and when singing. But her creditable performance is soon blown off course by the truly thrilling twister, which sucks Dorothy, her scene-stealing little dog Toto and the audience into its vortex before dumping us into the garishly technicolour land of Oz. With the appearance of the Wicked Witch (a demented Hannah Waddingham bearing more than a passing resemblance to Bette Midler), it becomes clear exactly what Hope is up against, both in terms of plot and ability. Waddingham is superbly malevolent, shrieking: “She’s pretty, she’s clueless and I want her shoeless”, before taking off for a spin around the Palladium on her broomstick.
Meanwhile, Dorothy tugs her Westie (one of four working in rotation) along the yellow brick road in the company of Tin Man, the cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow, who, in a rare moment of hilarity, is mocked by the very crows he is supposed to banish. Although Dorothy’s travelling companions are all perfectly likeable, I confess that by this stage I was rooting firmly for the Witch.
The art-deco-inspired Emerald City of Oz is simply stunning, the flying monkeys scary enough to reduce at least one small child to tears, and with pyrotechnics aplenty (someone should remind the producers that there is a reason why dogs don’t go out on Bonfire Night), this Wizard contains just about enough thrills to keep the grown-ups watching until, safely back in Kansas, Hope takes her final bow. You can sense her relief. All the words in the right order – and in tune to boot – helped in no small part by an excellent band. However, fans of Crawford should get their skates on. I can’t imagine him sticking around in Oz for very much longer, given the paucity of his role.
“I’m proud to be a friend of Dorothy”, announced the Lion to knowing laughter. Certainly, there were a disproportionate number of men in the audience who had Dorothy’s number on speed dial. Now there’s a funny thing. You can tell yourself: “There’s no place like home” until, like the Witch, you’re green in the face, but many “friends of Dorothy” know better. Perhaps the enduring appeal of The Wizard of Oz lies in wishing it were true.