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Anyone Seen the Wizard?

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There's always been something special about opening night at the London Palladium, but it's never been quite as alarming as it was last night, with barriers all the way along Argyll Street and security officials in luminous jackets ushering ticket holders away from the theatre instead of into it.

Still, there was a rare old buzz around Oxford Circus and around the stage door and outside Liberty's, despite all the best efforts of the showbiz enforcers to turn the area into Checkpoint Charlie.

Legendary wine merchant John Avery, one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's oldest friends, was told to move along smartly, or else, despite protesting weakly that he was waiting to meet his wife.

Star-gazers were corralled inside a narrow barricaded walkway like cattle on market day in Skipton, and the Press diverted into the featureless box office area to collect their tickets and chomp on curly sandwiches in the interval.

The old magic was alive and well, though, in the stalls and circle, and also in the main bar downstairs, though I still miss the previous location of it foursquare in the centre of the room with customers on all sides.

But this, above all big West End bars, feels like a proper opening night setting, and pushing through the throng I found lyricist Don Black still chewing over his speech for composer John Barry's memorial; agent and producer Alex Armitage revealing that his underrated musical Radio Times (which starred Tony Slattery in the West End -- so, how many years ago is that?) is coming round again at the Watermill, Newbury, this summer; and producer Bill Kenwright's aide-de-camp Julius Green plotting another batch of productions and a return to Edinburgh this August.

Quietly keeping his own counsel during all of this was lyricist Tim Rice, who sat down on the end of a row just as the lights dimmed, and sat happily reading the Evening Standard during the interval.

Michael Caine and Michael Winner were schmoozing upstairs at circle bar level, though both were in the stalls, as was Peter Brown, one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's most trusted allies, and former colleague of Brian Epstein in the Beatles era.

Peter is the Brown in publicity firm Brown Lloyd James (the others are Nick Lloyd, former Daily Express editor, and Howell James, former ally of John Major and long since departed the company), and one of the most stylish and civilised men on the planet.

He surprised me, though, by asking me in the interval if I'd written my review already, assuming I'd done so and returned for the First Night barney out of choice. Which only goes to show how even people at the top of the PR pyramid don't understand how critics work.

One of the nicest side effects of the search for Dorothy television show hosted by Lloyd Webber and Graham Norton is that all the Dorothy finalists support each other at their various openings -- as indeed did all the Marias in the Sound of Music, for a while.

And there they all were, dotted around the stalls, waving to each other like schoolgirls on a half term outing. "Over the Rainbow" comes very early in the evening, so there's no chance of it being over-milked, as it usually is, as a tear-sodden eleven o'clock number (my deep aversion to this treatment has still kept me away from Tracie Bennett in her reputedly knock-out performance at the Trafalgar Studios).

Anyway, Danielle Hope sings the song with bell-like clarity and simple niceness, which was a blessed relief, and all her little friends and rivals were first to express their appreciation.

The great mystery of the evening remains the subdued participation of Michael Crawford as the Wizard, who seems to have lost all his devilry and overflowing charm, not to mention (less surprisingly), his trademark athleticism.

The show's bound to be a hit -- it's already taken over £10 million at the box office, we are told -- but I somehow feel that Charles Spencer's bizarre recommendation in the Daily Telegraph won't be making it on to the advertising hoardings: "I did at least manage to sit through it without throwing up."


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