Review: The Wizard of Oz (Leeds Playhouse)
The family musical runs at the renamed venue this Christmas
You'd expect something spectacular to be the first Christmas show at the restyled, renamed and reopened Leeds Playhouse and The Wizard of Oz certainly fits the bill. James Brining's production throws pretty much everything at the classic MGM film – and makes nearly all of it stick. There are over 20 cast members, nearly as many again in the splendid young ensemble, a fine 11-piece band, some superb visual effects, plenty of flying, inspired choreography and much more.
As this is a spectacular and thoroughly delightful production with no weaknesses, why not start the review with my only reservation? The film lasts 101 minutes; the Leeds Playhouse production lasts 150 minutes of stage time. There are reasons: the restored Jitterbug number – sparkily played and brilliantly staged and danced – is a more than welcome addition; music that covers the costume changes is necessary and attractive. But for all that, the evening is a touch too long and some act one dialogue scenes move a little slowly.
That apart, there is nothing not to like. Lucy Sherman, sharing the role of Dorothy with Agatha Meehan, is outstanding, spirited, fresh and natural at the same time as being assured and professional, with a singing voice to melt audience hearts in "Over the Rainbow". Early on she even overcomes the problem of being upstaged by an alarmingly lovable Toto, taking puppet form in this production.
In a fine cast, with enough eccentricity to make us believe the incredible, Polly Lister excels as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch, unpleasantly human as the former, mixing scenery-chewing with dry wit as the latter. Marcus Ayton (Lion), Eleanor Sutton (Scarecrow) and Sam Harrison (Tin Man) interact neatly, Ayton wisely adopting a very different style from the great Bert Lahr and delivering a virtuoso "If I Were King of the Forest".
Phil Cole and Angela Wynter are amiably convincing as Uncle Henry and Aunt Em and give full value to their Oz equivalents respectively: a bumblingly good-hearted guard and Glinda the Good Witch, sparklingly wise. Graham Hoadly mixes pomposity, kindness, humbug and honesty most appealingly as the Professor and the Wizard.
If anything, musically the show works even better. We all know and love Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's great songs and they are extremely well sung and imaginatively staged, but in the hands of Tamara Saringer's smart 11-piece band (special praise for the three versatile reeds players), Herbert Stothart's underscoring and interludes are equally telling. Lucy Cullingford's choreography in two wonderful production numbers in short order – "The Merry Old Land of Oz" and "Jitterbug" – helps achieve lift-off in a second half that finally touches down in a sweet Kansas finale, stolen of course by Toto the dog.
All this is set in Simon Higlett's design, simple when it can be, elaborate when it needs to be. Kansas is represented by a water tower at one side and a farmhouse at the other, with plenty of room for carts, bikes and a passing train. Tim Claydon as aerial director takes charge of flying witches and wizards in and out and setting up dive-bomb attacks by flying monkeys. Overall the ingenious mix of high-tech and low-tech is perfectly shown in the dramatic effects for the twister that takes Dorothy to the land of Oz.