The Wizard of Oz: please take a detour off this Yellow Brick Road

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The Wizard of Oz: Cliffs Pavilion, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, 21.2.2024. (JPr)

The Vivienne (The Wicked Witch) and Aviva Tulley (Dorothy)

A run of very enjoyable shows at the Cliffs Pavilion or nearby Palace Theatre had to end sometime and it did with this dreadful adaptation of the classic 1939 MGM version of The Wizard of Oz with its music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E. Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg and starring – as if you didn’t know – Judy Garland. It was based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s fantasy novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. As an introduction in the programme suggests, because Baum’s story has ‘universal themes of human existence – the eternal struggle between good and evil and the desire to find a better place to be – it is hardly surprising that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been interpreted for stage, screen and television many times.’ Surely, it cannot have had an adaption before that has so little respect for the source material. (I come to this having never read anything by Baum or seen the 1939 film all the way through, but I have seen enough clips over the years to make me almost believe I had seen it.)

My mistake was not to notice – even though this Wizard of Oz dates back to 2011 – (Lord) Andrew Lloyd Webber’s name attached to it, not only in adapting it with Jeremy Sams but also providing music for some new songs to lyrics by (Sir) Tim Rice. Anybody who has seen and heard any musical with words by Tim Rice will recognise his (over-)familiar use of rhymes in the new songs and a verse from Professor Marvel and Dorothy’s ‘The Wonders of the World’ should suffice:

There’s old popacatepetl
New York City, glass and metal
Everest unconquered mountain
Over five miles high and countin’.

Indeed, there are too many songs now and not enough left of the story.

Last Christmas Joe Pasquale ditched most of J. M. Barrie’s timeless tale of Peter Pan’s adventures and created an end-of-the-Southend-pier-style pantomime variety show for the Cliffs Pavilion. You can expect that because it was Christmas and that would be the right time of the year for this Wizard of Oz. It now lacks many of the fantasy elements, much of the ‘heart’ (!) and even the genuine sense of peril of the original tale of Dorothy and her dog being swept away from their Kansas home by a tornado and finding themselves in the magical land of Oz she has dreamt up inhabited with characters which are versions of those in her real life. When Dorothy and her new friends fight the now non-Flying Monkeys and the other minions of the Wicked Witch, I expected the audience to have the sponge rocks you get to throw at the pirates in Peter Pan. Because she was just an out-and-out pantomime villain goodness knows why those in the Cliffs Pavilion (including many young children) never booed the Wicked Witch whenever she came on to the stage. Add in all the puns, in-jokes and innuendo (The Cowardly Lion reveals how he is a ‘friend of Dorothy’) and pantomime has returned to the Cliffs Pavilion ten months early!

Lloyd Webber clearly needs something to earn him money because of his diminishing West End box office returns in recent years; remember Cinderella (or as it was equally unsuccessful on Broadway, Bad Cinderella) or the revival last year of Aspects of Love, both ending their runs prematurely. The only real money spent on The Wizard of Oz – any star turns notwithstanding – was on the embellished and colourful costumes but look out for The Scarecrow’s ‘false arm’ scene when I would have expected something more realistic in a school play.

Most of this Wizard of Oz is in 2D and we are endlessly made to watch Douglas O’Connell’s unsophisticated video projections which are akin to a steampunk video game and indeed the stage actually looks like a large computer screen. It takes us from rural Kansas of the Depression era through the oil fields despoiling the landscape to Oz’s Emerald City which is part-Las Vegas, part-Times Square, and along the way there is every possible use of ‘Oz’ such as Ozdonalds, Ozbucks and Ozzo gas stations. There are very few props in a show lasting less than two hours (excluding an interval). Following the Yellow Brick Road is botched by arrow-like platforms being pushed about by members of the ensemble in what limited space there was available onstage. And what about Toto, Dorothy’s dog, which Ms Gulch/Wicked Witch detests so much; here it is a cute puppet totally dominated by Abigail Matthews who manipulates it. It doesn’t work, though I am not sure what would. And what about those Munchkins, we know what they can’t be in the 2000s, but what they are now I had no idea.

RuPaul’s Drag Race UK first season champion The Vivienne as the menacing Wicked Witch zaps with an upgraded broom anyone who annoys her; well, that’s everyone including me because she shouts too much. (In truth, the broom looked like a section of exhaust pipe you might see abandoned on the side of the road.) The Tin Man (Marley Fenton) and The Scarecrow (Benjamin Yates) have been reimagined and not for the better whilst Nic Greenshields’s The Cowardly Lion channels Bert Lahr from the famous film and proves the best of Dorothy’s three companions. The always-watchable musical theatre veteran Gary Wilmot is wasted as Professor Marvel/The Wizard but it’s a job and I don’t begrudge him – and all of the very hardworking, all-singing, all-dancing cast – that. They are supported well by a small band of ten under musical director Iestyn Griffiths, though I suspect some of what we heard was pre-recorded.

Emily Bull (Glinda) and Aviva Tulley (Dorothy) with Toto

As a musical The Wizard of Oz wastes its most memorable song, ‘Over the Rainbow’, within the first ten minutes even though it was wonderfully sung by exciting new talent Aviva Tulley who was perfect as Dorothy and maybe too good for this show. Another standout performance was Emily Bull doubling as Aunt Em and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, seen whizzing about in Barbie-like pink and on a similarly coloured scooter. Bull’s soaring vocals during ‘Already Home’ ushers in Dorothy’s return from Oz when – in the only really effective scene of the evening – she bids a poignant goodbye to her friends, taps the heels of her iconic red shoes together, saying ‘There’s no place like home’, three times. If only I could have got home as quick!

Jim Pritchard

For more information about the current The Wizard of Oz tour click here.

Principal Cast:
Aviva Tulley – Dorothy
The Vivienne – The Wicked Witch of The West
Nic Greenshields – The Cowardly Lion
Benjamin Yates – The Scarecrow
Marley Fenton – The Tin Man
Gary Wilmot – The Wizard
Emily Bull – Glinda
Abigail Matthews – Toto
David Burrows – Uncle Henry

Music – Harold Arlen
Lyrics – E.Y. Harburg
Additional Music – Andrew Lloyd Webber
Additional Lyrics – Tim Rice
Based upon the classic motion picture
and an adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams
Director – Nikolai Foster
Choreographer – Shay Barclay
Set designer – Colin Richmond
Projection designer – Douglas O’Connell
Costume and Puppet designer – Rachael Canning
Lighting designer – Ben Cracknell
Sound designer – Adam Fisher
Creative consultant – Mark Kaufman
Musical supervisor – George Dyer

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