L Frank Baum’s classic tale of The Wizard of Oz is a pretty safe bet for a Christmas show for the young, particularly when boosted by EY Harburg’s sentimental-to-satirical lyrics and Harold Arlen’s memorable music. When it receives a production as stylish as this, with a fine ensemble and frequently stunning visual impact, its success is assured.

Rachel Kavanaugh’s production of John Kane’s adaptation, seen last year at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, takes the 1939 film, rather than the original story, as its main inspiration. This shows in many ways, not least in the highly effective Twister Scene created on film by Second Home Production. The musical underscoring and the fluid switching and merging of scenes (great fun with the revolving stage) are equally cinematic.

The story is clearly enough told – and with sufficient humour and empathy with the characters – to be received with rapt attention by its young audience. Dorothy, a young girl in Kansas, falls out briefly with the loving aunt and uncle who have raised her, runs away, repents her decision, gets trapped in a tornado and knocked unconscious. This leads to her adventures in Oz, a land filled with fantasy extensions of her family, friends and neighbours in Kansas. Finally, realising that there’s no place like home, she returns there – or regains consciousness.

As Dorothy, Helen Owen is attractively straightforward, exorcising the ghost of Judy Garland by ignoring her. She sings “Over the Rainbow” well, as a song, not an anthem for an era, and eschews cuteness, bringing out the Alice-like resourcefulness of a sensible girl adrift in a crazy world. The excellence of the ensemble - from David Ganly’s Lion, a mock-heroic vaudevillian, to the smallest, astonishingly assured Munchkins - is uniform, give or take the occasional modest singing voice.

Visually, the production is outstanding. Designer Peter McKintosh flies in striking two- and three-dimensional images from a poppy field with the yellow-brick road climbing into the distance to the humanised wheels and cogs of the Wizard’s workshop. The result is a remarkable fusion of constantly shifting backgrounds and memorable tableaux.

Jenny Arnold’s choreography is equally impressive, at its considerable best in the slyly cumulative tribute to the Wonderful Land of Oz. Stephen Ridley’s six-piece pit band is enormously versatile and can summon up the right 1930s feel when required. Overall, this is a production that feels “right” in every detail, from flying witches to human crows.

- Ron Simpson (reviewed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds)


NOTE: The following review dates from December 2003 and this production's original run at Birmingham Rep.

When faced with staging a story which is loved by millions worldwide, directors have to answer the following dilemma: do you stick to tradition and risk being branded unimaginative, or come up with a new concept and stand accused of tampering with a classic?

In this new Christmas production of The Wizard of Oz, director Rachel Kavanaugh manages to use filmed sequences and contemporary set to stamp her mark on Dorothy's journey, without veering from the charming tale.

So the cyclone is played out on a video screen, with images of the storm interspersed with pictures of Dorothy sleeping, to a cracking thunderstorm soundtrack. And Peter McKintosh's set is based around a series of huge backdrop circles which fly in and out, and the yellow brick road a never-ending ring which revolves around the stage.

Suzanne Toase makes a fresh faced and charming Dorothy, with mannerisms and accent not unlike Judy Garland's screen performance, and a beautifully innocent singing voice.

She was well-supported by Michael Cahill, Robert Hands and Jamie Beamish as the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion respectively, and Fiona Dunn's good Witch Glinda sings up a storm with her trademark glorious soprano.

But somewhere along the yellow brick road the piece lost its way. The initial sequences at the Gale farm are spot-on, and act two's big numbers - "The Merry Old Land of Oz" and "Jitterbug" are full of energy, but a good two thirds of act one just seems to plod, with a lot of the humour of the crows and the apple trees missing.

Having four adult professionals playing the Munchkin leaders jarred - why couldn't the kids have managed those few lines? - and Jenny Arnold's choreography was mostly unpolished and, at times, decidedly untogether.

Perhaps the acting pedigree of the company of 13 just didn't stretch to the levels of singing and dancing I would like in a musical - Toase and Dunn aside.

Or perhaps I'm just overly critical - a The Wizard of Oz purist spoiled by a dynamite production at the temporarily-closed Leicester Haymarket a couple of years back, which for now will remain my benchmark.

Either way, the audience followed Dorothy's lead and headed home with a smile on their faces. And that can't be all bad.

- Elizabeth Ferrie