The Wizard of Oz – Birmingham Hippodrome

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writer: L Frank Baum

Music: Harold Arlen with additional music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Lyrics: E. Y. Harburg with additional lyrics by Tim Rice

Adaptors: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams

Director: Nikolai Foster

This revival of the latest version of The Wizard of Oz is a gloriously camp riot of Technicolor storytelling. It’s based more firmly on the 1939 film than the 1900 book, so the story will be familiar to many. Dorothy is deposited in the magical world of Oz after feeling undervalued and invisible at home. She makes some unlikely friends with whom she seeks the help of the wizard. But he won’t help unless they help him by eliminating the Wicked Witch of the West, so they set out on a quest of self-discovery, with Dorothy eventually returning home to Kansas.

A lot of thought has gone into the overall feel and design of the piece. The set and costumes (Colin Richmond and Rachael Canning) start muted in depression-ridden Kansas, bursting into colour in Oz. The set is mainly minimalist, with occasional set pieces dragged on – for example, for the journey along the Yellow Brick Road, or the lairs of Oz and the Wicked Witch of the West – with much of the heavy lifting in terms of setting the scene done by the video design of Douglas O’Connell. The tornado sequence is really quite discombobulating, while the scenes in Oz are remarkably detailed – one is tempted at times to enjoy the many jokes and references there at the expense of the action – a lovely callback is a poster for the Ozian musical, Margaret Hamilton.

Director Nikolai Foster combines these elements to help move the mood with more than a nod to classic movie tropes – the aesthetics of the Wicked Witch’s army of Winkies wouldn’t look out of place in a production of 1984 or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and could be genuinely scary to younger members of the audience, for example.

The acid test for any version is how relatable Dorothy is – and her first test is early on as she sings Over the Rainbow with Toto. Aviva Tully proves to be a match for the task; she has a sweet tuneful voice with the right degree of wistfulness as well as quite the belt for the climax. Her friends, The Scarecrow (Benjamin Yates), The Tin Man (Aston Merrygold) and the Cowardly Lion (Nic Greenshields) steal the show, however, as they embark on their journeys. All three inhabit the roles with great physicality. Yates’ Scarecrow is a gloriously camp cowboy whose joints appear to be barely held together with rubber bands. Merrygold’s Tin Man certainly has the moves as he is lubricated and able to move more fluidly. Greenshields has a somewhat underused powerful tenor voice; his lion is a cuddly teddy bear of a character whom one just wants to hug. And, of course, each comes into his own as the story progresses.

On this leg of the tour, the Wicked Witch is played by Craig Revel-Horwood who positively revels in being evil as he struts around the stage. If one is only familiar with his persona on Strictly, his fab-u-lous singing voice may come as a surprise. While his performance is quite cartoonish, there is, nevertheless, a real undercurrent of jeopardy in his dealings with Dorothy and his minions.

The use of real dogs for Toto is eschewed in favour of an adorable puppet operated by Abigail Matthews. Matthews brings Toto to vibrant life and one soon forgets that this inquisitive mischievous character is anything other than a real dog as he bounds around the stage looking quizzically around and wagging his tail.
Emily Bull showcases her powerful and sweet voice as the saccharine Glinda while Allan Stewart clearly enjoys his dual roles as the humbug Wizard and Professor Marvel, finding just the right level of absent-minded-professor vibe. A large and talented ensemble completes the cast.

Like the film, this production provides some much-needed escapist fantasy at a time of uncertainty across the globe, with the spectre of the rise of the far right looming. At least we can briefly forget all that as we journey to the wonderful world of Oz where good always triumphs and everyone gets their just desserts.

Runs until 16 June 2024 and on tour

The Reviews Hub Score

Fab-u-lous escapism

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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