Dorothy in dungarees after Garland in gingham? In the new stage version of The Wizard of Oz at the Palladium, TV’s reality show star Danielle Hope slouches around the place like a down home dullsville suddenly transfigured by singing “Over the Rainbow” with a bell-like purity and passion.
Before then, though, she has to sing a superfluous but brilliantly executed song, one of a new few, by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber – “Nobody Understands Me” – that sets the stage musical off on a reflective, philosophical tangent to the perfect screen original.
The thing about 16 year-old Judy Garland in the 1939 MGM movie was her headlong, astonishing childish maturity and star quality; 18 year-old Danielle is lovely – and much better than a rather grim-jawed Imelda Staunton in the charmless 1987 RSC stage version – but she’s “acting” a role, not living it, and adjusting her new companions to her own niceness, not discovering their innate qualities. What’s missing? Yearning, desperation, love; that’s all.
Not least among the evening’s pleasures is matching the clever, conscientious rhyming of Rice’s new lyrics against the unforced vernacular elegance of Yip Harburg’s. And Lloyd Webber’s music, some of it incidental, some of it melodramatic (especially for the Wicked Witch) is not only not his absolute best, but also curiously uninspired; this is not these boys’ right reunion show.
Because Michael Crawford is playing Professor Marvel (and the Wizard) he has to have a second scene travelogue song, “Wonders of the World,” that is as flat as a pancake; similarly, his act one finale, “Bring Me the Broomstick” is all unmelodious puff and wind, and Crawford fires zero comedy sparks on playing tour guides and doormen as prelude to the revelation.
Jeremy Sams’ production, beautifully designed by Robert Jones (apart from the terrible Wizard face-projecting video), takes us from the dark Kansas vistas of furrowed fields to the green art deco Palace of Oz, via the revolving cornfield and flower banks along the Yellow Brick Road; a colourful eyeball feast, all right.
And the daring descent from the dizzyingly high ceiling of an unrecognisable, hook-nosed and hilarious Hannah Waddingham as the Wicked Witch is a neat riposte to all that Spiderman silliness in New York. Overall, though, I was less than pole-axed by this revival, which doesn’t have a comparable artistic urgency behind it as the same team’s The Sound of Music.
The Munchkins, thank heavens, are nearly normal, not a bunch of squawky midgets, and there’s a couple of lovely cinematic gags for David Ganley’s Cowardly Lion – “the lion sleeps tonight” in the poppy field and he’s a lion in winter in the snow storm.
These friends of Dorothy are under-cast, though; we need a great tragic Gambon type as the Lion, if we don’t have vaudevillian successors to Bert Lahr. Edward Baker-Duly’s robotic Tin Man and Paul Keating’s floppy, red-nosed Scarecrow are a bit more like it, but not funny, or nearly loveable, enough.
David Cullen’s elegant, always interesting orchestrations are slyly creative throughout, and there’s some typically energetic choreography from Arlene Phillips on the revolving stage before Waddingham lets rip in her big new blues number (though it’s not about to become a standard), and there’s a sweetly imaginative new coda back in Dorothy’s bedroom.
Some glancing details are treasurable: the chorus of puppet crows in the cornfield; the flying silhouette of Miss Gulch on her bicycle; the reclining gates and overwhelming brass engine room at Oz; the interweaving of offstage effects and little Welsh terrier Toto’s stoical barks and bites; and the pleasure, I concede, of an audience greeting a very old friend and celebrating a very great movie.