The Wizard of Oz maintains Sheffield Crucible‘s tradition of excellent productions of classic musicals, with artistic director Robert Hastie slotting in seamlessly his first Christmas production for the theatre. As lavish as it is imaginative, the production runs to a cast of 20-plus (not counting Munchkins) and a lively and versatile ten-piece band under Toby Higgins.
Not only Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s take on L Frank Baum’s tale, but the entire imagery of the 1939 film, remains so embedded in our consciousness that a stage version is in an unusual position. Interpretation is no problem (Judy Garland and Co nailed that), but stamping some individuality on the production is. For instance, there are relatively few full-length numbers in the score, but three of them have iconic status – you can’t mess with "We’re off to see the Wizard!". The result: Hastie and choreographer Ewan Jones make a terrific production number of "The Merry Old Land of Oz", Arlen and Harburg at their most jaunty, but not quite so familiar.
The show opens fairly slowly (maybe the film does, too), with only Michael Matus’ wry Uncle Henry and Sophia Nomvete’s irritably good-hearted Aunt Em making much impact among the adult characters. Gabrielle Brooks’ wide-eyed indignation as Dorothy registers from the start and her deeply felt "Over the Rainbow" appeals without stopping the show. The tornado’s path of destruction is deliberately low-tech, members of the multi-tasking ensemble disassembling picket fences and the farm-house. When the upper layer of the stage is raised up like a giant bagel, we are in Munchkinland.
The young company of Munchkins is full of life and the production lifts off. From here on in Janet Bird’s designs make full use of the glorious expanse of the Crucible stage, the yellow brick road winding in illuminated circles, the Wizard concealed behind power-station technology, roller skating monkeys zooming on to the aid of the Wicked Witch, the basket of a hot-air balloon representing both imprisonment and escape.
Hastie takes the doubling of characters in Kansas and Oz a stage further than the film, with Nomvete and Matus making their mark as Glinda the Good Witch and the Oz Gatekeeper, respectively. Catrin Aaron, maybe not quite bitter enough as Miss Gulch, has just the right sardonic edge for the Wicked Witch and Ryan Ellsworth neatly doubles Professor Marvel and the Wizard.
Dorothy’s three companions follow the originals faithfully, Andrew Langtree’s Scarecrow floppily sympathetic and Max Parker bringing a strong singing voice and well-oiled dance moves to the Tin Man. Jonathan Broadbent is amiability itself as the Cowardly Lion and Gabrielle Brooks a feisty and unaffected Dorothy, even if they can’t quite escape the memory of Bert Lahr and Judy Garland.
The dozen-strong ensemble does it all – singing, dancing, acting parts, shifting sets, adding informal percussion – and the production is opulent, slick and unfailingly enjoyable. The audience favourite, of course, is Toto the dog, a genuine canine in the Kansas scenes and smartly managed by puppeteer Rhiannon Wallace in the land of Oz.
The Wizard of Oz runs at Sheffield Crucible until 20 January.