The Wizard of Oz
L Frank Baum with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E Y Harburg
Robert Hastie ends the first year of his tenure as Artistic Director at Sheffield Theatres with a brilliant production of The Wizard of Oz. Theatregoers are more likely to be familiar with the Judy Garland film version of the book and Hastie retains a number of familiar images from that. But essentially this is a superbly innovative production bursting with humour and imaginative ideas which tells the story with great clarity and at a deliberate pace.
Janet Bird’s set is a wonder to behold. The little house in Kansas disintegrates and flies away in the twister, the Yellow Brick Road is achieved by clever lighting effects and the Kingdom of Oz emerges slowly with the help of dramatic and unexpected hydraulics. When we eventually see the face of the supposed Wizard, it is huge and terrifying in contrast to the modest little man we meet later. I’ve not seen a set like this off the West End stage. Lighting, music and sound effects add greatly to the magic of the performance.
The controlled pace of the action allows the principal actors to develop their characters in depth and with convincing sincerity. As Dorothy, Gabrielle Brooks has the onerous task of singing the songs most closely associated with Judy Garland, like "Over the Rainbow" but she finds her own interpretation which is distinguished by its honesty and integrity. Her concern for Toto is completely believable.
The structure of the musical permits each of Dorothy’s companions to be introduced individually. The costumes for the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, played by Andrew Langtree, Max Parker and Jonathan Broadbent respectively, are charming and their characterisation is aided by well-rehearsed comedic mime which is particularly entertaining. It takes plenty of tumbles before the Scarecrow can stand on his poorly stuffed legs, the Tin Man needs a lot of oiling before his convincing stiffness wears off, and the Lion, also a good tumbler, has a great deal of fun with his tail.
The characters in the opening Kansas scene, the nasty schoolteacher who wants Toto put down, the kindly Aunt Em and Uncle Henry and Professor Marvel reappear transformed in the Oz scenes. Catrin Aaron, sharp and unrelenting as the teacher, returns as the Wicked Witch of the West with a piercing cackle, while Aunt Em (Sophia Nomvete) is the good witch Glinda, Uncle Henry (Michael Matus) the Oz Gatekeeper and Marvel (Ryan Ellesworth) the Wizard.
This is very much a company show with excellent song and dance routines, choreographed by Ewan Jones and a delightful appearance by the large group of child performers as the Munchkins. The circular stage is lined by older members of the company, who sing, provide additional music and sound effects and help with scene changes, all of which enables the action to proceed seamlessly.
A word must be said for Toto who appears in two manifestations, one a remarkably placid real dog (aah!) and as a puppet designed by Rachael Canning and brilliantly animated by Rhiannon Wallace, woofs and all.
As a director, Robert Hastie demonstrates that he has a brain, a heart and plenty of courage. But what really stands out is the integrity of the production, which draws the audience in and creates a believable and thoroughly enjoyable magical world. Not to be missed!
Reviewer: Velda Harris