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Review Round-up: RFH Wizard of Oz Loses Magic?

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The cast of Wicked may have been shaking in their capes. The Wizard of Oz returned to the London stage last night (29 July 2008, previews from 23 July) for the first time since the original 1987 production of the screen-to-stager. The Southbank Centre revival runs for a limited summer season to 31 August 2008 at the Royal Festival Hall (See News, 26 Mar 2008). But did the critics think Elphaba and co have anything to worry about?

Leading the 50-strong cast of Southbank Centre artistic director Jude Kelly’s new production, Sian Brooke’s steps into Judy Garland’s ruby slippers as Dorothy, starring alongside former Royal Ballet principal Adam Cooper as the Tin Man, Gary Wilmot as the Cowardly Lion, Hilton McRae as the Scarecrow, Roy Hudd as the Wizard and Julie Legrand as the Wicked Witch of the West. Toto is played by a West Highland terrier named Bobby.

L Frank Baum himself wrote the first 1903 stage version of his 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The story is best known from the 1939 Hollywood film starring a 16-year-old Judy Garland. This musical version, adapted by John Kane from the Warner Bros movie and with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and EY Harburg, was premiered in 1987 by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican (where it was revived in 1988 before transferring to Stratford in 1989), with a young Imelda Staunton as Dorothy. This is the first major London production since then.

Director Jude Kelly previously helmed a 2002 revival of the musical at Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse, where she was then artistic director. The Wizard of Oz is designed by Michael Vale, with musical direction by Jonathan Gill, choreography by Nick Winston, lighting by Mike Gunning and visual installation by Huntley Muir.

While overnight critics found much to praise in the production, most were ultimately underwhelmed by its “upmarket panto” feel and “drab” staging. Many acknowledged that the Royal Festival Hall is “not designed for theatre”, but nevertheless felt disappointed by the “direction and design decisions” which made the three-hour production lack “the necessary wow-factor”. The cast found greater favour. Though Sian Brooke struggled to exorcise the ghost of Judy Garland in critics’ minds, her musical theatre debut was nonetheless deemed “creditable”, and Adam Cooper, Gary Wilmot, Hilton McRae and Julie Legrand were all applauded for their performances,

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “Kelly’s robust production ... trudges along at nearly three hours playing time, with an energy-sapping, tinny sound system and over-emphatic playing style … Designer Michael Vale uses a split stage of projections on the upper level – a somewhat cartoon vortex for the Kansas twister, a battery of incomprehensible video screen images, a scratchy outline of the Emerald City – and solid scenery below. Sian Brooke is a likeable, over-age Dorothy but the role is a vacuum without Judy Garland, and her little dog Toto – played winningly by a plumpish white Highland terrier ... Hilton McRae is a delightful, bendy-legged Scarecrow with a Stan Laurel blink; Adam Cooper a stiff-limbed, signalling Tin Man who can nonetheless tap dance like Gene Kelly; and Gary Wilmot a loveable Cowardly Lion nothing like Bert Lahr, zanier and ‘aw-shucksy’. But their triple quest for a brain, heart and courage in the Land of Oz is uninvolving and repetitive. I miss the sinister dwarfishness of the Munchkins in the movie; a stage full of cute kids turns the show into a pantomime … There are compensatory pleasures in the three dive-bombing black crows … but by the time the March of the Winkies plods by for the third time and Dorothy exclaims, ‘Now I’ll never get home,’ there was an almost audible susurration in the stalls of ‘Neither will we!’.”
    • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (three stars) – \"This production ... like most stagings of the show struggles to escape from under the shadow of the movie. It doesn\'t help that the yellow brick road turns out to be exceptionally winding, creating a journey time of close on three hours. By the end I was longing to click my own ruby slippers straight for bed. Kelly isn\'t just grappling with a script that encourages a facsimile of the movie rather than a more imaginative response, she is also cursed with the fact that the Royal Festival Hall was not designed for theatre and size-wise is probably only slightly smaller than Kansas. Still, this is a woman who has always known how to think big, and here big means filling the stage with lots of children like an upmarket panto, and a two-tier design … Hilton McRae is a genuinely lovable Scarecrow, Adam Cooper a splendidly bendy dancing Tin Man and Gary Wilmot brings just the right degree of camp to the Cowardly Lion. Julie Legrand\'s Miss Gulch and Wicked Witch of the West is a total boo-fest although the way she melts is a bit of a disappointment. Essentially, this feels very much like a Christmas show that has got its seasons mixed up. ”
    • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph – This production “lacks the necessary wow-factor. The songs are as fabulous as ever and the story is an enduring enchantment. But the spatial limitations of the Festival Hall stage mean that, whether we\'re in Kansas or somewhere over the rainbow, there\'s little room for imaginative manoeuvre. You can hardly blame Kelly for this. Even so, I\'ve seen provincial productions strive harder to match the visual splendour of the film. Depression-era America seems to be used as a convenient fig-leaf for an austerity aesthetic. Above the actors, a space between two Thirties-style billboards houses a small screen for projected illustrations and animations. These are dismayingly faux-naïf … Still, the pacing is lively, the intermittent dance routines are appealing and the cast give it full value. Brooke\'s Dorothy lacks Judy Garland\'s wide-eyed responsiveness, but she handles both the songs and Toto with twinkling aplomb. Adam Cooper brings a delightful athleticism to the role of the Tin Man, Gary Wilmot lights up the stage as the Cowardly Lion and Hilton McRae\'s scraggy Scarecrow is just the ticket. There\'s fine, daffy-faced work too from that old trouper Roy Hudd as the Wizard, and Julie Legrand has exactly the right pinched menace as the Wicked Witch. It\'s all perfectly adequate and could have been tremendous; as it is, it feels like a case of wrong time, wrong place.”
    • Paul Taylor in the Independent (three stars)– \"The Royal Festival Hall was never meant for theatre and Kelly fails to rise to the challenge of its unbounded space. Her production effectively denies the architecture. It feels perversely poky because she\'s hemmed in the action throughout, even after the uninspired transition to Oz, with the drab corrugated iron walls of the farm in Kansas. It\'s ironic that a piece about how you have to go far afield in order to truly learn that home is best seems to be taking place in Dorothy\'s backyard. If this is supposed to be making some paradoxical point, the constriction is not worth it. The cramping design is surmounted by a horizontal screen onto which coloured Kidpix-style drawings are projected ... There was derisive laughter when Dorothy exclaimed at the wonder of Emerald City because it was a puny green squiggle on the screen … When oiled, Adam Cooper\'s Tin Man dances a witty tap horn-pipe of liberation … Gary Wilmot is endearing as the Cowardly Lion … Toto is adorable. The superb orchestra brings real punch to the droll perkiness of the score. In her musical debut, Sian Brooke gives a creditable performance, though for my taste her Dorothy is too confident and self-possessed. When she sings ‘Over the Rainbow’, there\'s little of the soaring yearning that makes you fall in love with Judy Garland.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (two stars) – “Jude Kelly\'s production certainly has its strengths - though brevity is not one of them. It remains generally faithful to the film\'s spell-casting plot. It makes subtle alterations in character-painting: the other-worldly companions in Oz-land to Sian Brooke\'s over-mature, sturdy rather than fragile Dorothy, are shrewdly saved from the patronising winsomeness of their film counterparts. Gary Wilmot\'s blustering, hyper-coward of a lion in search of courage, the appealing Tin Man of Adam Cooper, whose dancing abilities are not restricted by his body armour, and Hilton McRae\'s melancholy Scarecrow become far more engagingly human companions to Dorothy than the celluloid originals. And Julie Legrand\'s Wicked Witch of the West, all got-up in traditional black, greenish face, pointy hat, missing teeth and snarling malice, emanates a genuinely chilling evil. The crucial failure lies elsewhere. Michael Vale\'s designs … set the entire action in a Depression Period world of corrugated-iron, of abandoned, dilapidated, industrial machinery and telegraph poles ... This makes psychological sense for adults, but it will disappoint kids - the musical\'s target audience. The familiar songs from ‘Over the Rainbow’ to ‘We\'re Off to See the Wizard’ are transmitted with real ardour. But Dorothy\'s epic journey remains one which needs and misses the smack of serious magic.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (two stars) – “Jude Kelly’s revival … offers high-energy dance routines, hordes of singing children, echoey amplification and performances that never stray far from their counterparts in Victor Fleming\'s 1939 film. It is, despite its well-loved score by Harold Arlen and EY Harburg and its relentless jollity, as empty of real heart as the Tin Man believes his chest to be. The cavernous Royal Festival Hall is not a hospitable space for theatre, and the designs here do little to make it more magical. Michael Vale’s set is a clutter of corrugated iron, pylons and metal ladders … The yellow brick road is an unimpressive coloured ring and the appearances of Julie Legrand’s Wicked Witch of the West are heralded by the kind of loud bangs and smoke you’d expect of a pretty average pantomime. Still, Legrand offers the show’s most entertaining turn, stalking about the stage with camp abandon. Sian Brooke as Dorothy doesn’t attempt to exorcise the ghost of Judy Garland … Gary Wilmot is a nimble and energetic Cowardly Lion, but Hilton McRae as Scarecrow and Adam Cooper as the Tin Man struggle to project much personality beyond their costumes … There is occasional fun to be had … But where it should be dreamlike, the staging is merely mechanical, and it’s much too mundane to enchant.”
    • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (two stars) – “For much of this stage revival, I wondered if director Jude Kelly loathes the work. Although it improves as it gathers pace, largely thanks to the infectious enthusiasm of Adam Cooper as a balletic Tin Man and Gary Wilmot as a wonderfully fey Cowardly Lion, the production all too often seems determined to strip the exuberant, emotion-laden fantasy of its tension and its fun. It’s inevitably a tall order for Sian Brooke to fit into the ruby slippers of one of the last century’s great screen stars. She tries to differentiate herself from Judy Garland by affecting a proper Kansas accent and a teenage persona. Unfortunately that ends up as a whingy drawl that makes her gingham and pigtails all the more incongruous. Neither does it help that the 20-piece orchestration, with its concert-hall pretensions, seems to fight against both dialogue and foot-tapping numbers. But the real problem is the direction and design decisions, which sometimes seem so brainless they could have been made by Hilton McRae’s Scarecrow … There is some good choreography in the second half, and the melting of the Wicked Witch – played by Footballers’ Wives villain Julie Legrand – belatedly delivers some nifty stagecraft. Honours must also go to the West Highland terrier Bobby as a remarkably disciplined Toto.”

      - by Kate Jackson

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