Director: Robert Hastie
Choreographer: Ewan Jones
Written by: L. Frank Baum
Music & Lyrics: Harold Arlen
Reviewer: Beverley Haigh
Sheffield Theatres festive offering this year is the iconic The Wizard of Oz. This brand new production gives L. Frank Baum’s classic book a makeover, potentially appealing to a legion of new fans in the wake of Wicked, the record-breaking musical based on the untold story of the witches of Oz.
Although Baum’s original books were first published in 1900, it is the 1939 Judy Garland film that most people have as a definitive reference for The Wizard of Oz and the opening sequence of this production pays homage to that. The ensemble cast introduces the piece with a soundtrack evocative of 1940s harmonies in a decidedly cinematic introduction. The sepia Kansas from the film is reflected in the costume choices, as the characters recreate their world of picket fences and hillbilly banjo playing before it transforms into glorious technicolour.
Designer Janet Bird’s set is a masterpiece. It opens up like an oyster shell revealing its pearl; in this case, the treasure is the highly anticipated yellow brick road that lights up as the characters follow their path and ultimately their destiny. Similarly, Toto transforms from real-life terrier sidekick to a bright yellow puppet, which prompts Dorothy’s reaction, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
The arrival of the munchkins confirms this, with high energy routines and moments of comedy, this production providing something for everyone. The jokes are timeless and enduring as Scarecrow remarks, “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking”, reminiscent of a gentler time. There is even a comedic element brought to the cocktail-wielding Wicked Witch (Catrin Aaron), making her less intimidating for a younger audience.
The arrival in the Emerald City is a lavish and classy affair, with skilful acrobatic performances from the cast, building the piece to a visual climax. It is very much an ensemble piece, with the supporting players providing everything from the munchkins, the soundtrack, the storm as the pieces of house are blown away and the intoxicating poppies that hypnotise our heroes to sleep.
The main characters of Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion perfectly encapsulate the fateful foursome alongside Dorothy (Gabrielle Brooks), who at times completely outshines everyone with her huge voice. Her speaking voice perfectly echoes the warble of Judy Garland but when she sings Over the Rainbow, despite the numerous cover versions, Brooks somehow manages to make this song her own. Her performance is outstanding and truly deserving of the standing ovation received for this production.
An ambitious piece to stage, Sheffield Theatres have well and truly triumphed. With the majestic set and stunning costumes, it is a very slick and polished production, equally matched by strong performances worthy of the West End stage.
With a few updates for the better, such as the winged monkeys travelling on roller skates and the ruby slippers being slightly more tasteful than the ones in the film, this is a fairly faithful reincarnation of this classic and familiar musical. The Wizard of Oz is faultless and a showstopper of a Christmas production. An ideal tonic for an alternative to traditional pantomime.
Runs until 20th January 2018 | Image: Johan Persson