Tuesday 25th November 2019 at Leeds Playhouse.
Lions and tigers and bears? Witches and munchkins and ruby slippers? Oh my! Oz is well and truly back in town!
When it comes to the highly anticipated show for the festive season, Leeds Playhouse likes to go BIG. This production of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz takes the baton with verve and nerve, bringing the iconic tale of Dorothy, Toto and their tin, straw and lion friends to the stage with big energy, large scale spectacle and an abundance of real theatrical charm.
The story, of course, follows the journey of young Dorothy (Lucy Sherman, sharing the role with Agatha Meehan) from Kansas to Oz when she’s caught up in a terrible storm. While searching for home, she stumbles across a fun collective of misfits…as well as witches both good and bad. There’s Scarecrow (Eleanor Sutton) who lacks a brain, poor lass; Tinman (Sam Harrison), lacking a heart; and Lion (Marcus Ayton) who lacks courage – how unfortunate, poor lad! What this bunch lack in missing pieces they more than make up for with their entertaining antics and lovable unintentional foolishness. United by their sense of being incomplete without home, heart, brain or courage, the team go off to meet the Wizard of Oz (Graham Hoadly), who must surely be able to solve all their woes with the swish of a spell or some such.
In Lucy Sherman we find our thoroughly sweet and wonderful Dorothy, complete with sweet and pure vocals to match. Balancing endearing naivety with principled indignation as the narrative ploughs forward, Sherman carries the show incredibly impressively – made all the more impressive when we realise she’s carrying this titan at sweet fourteen! While all of her Oz pals without exception give winning performances, it’s Ayton who takes the crown with a thoroughly fantastic performance as the cowardly lion, bringing a very comical combination of stuttering cowardliness and beautifully paraded sassy bravado to the role.
Dorothy is of course famously accompanied by a canine pal quite as delightful as the human/tin/straw/big cat counterparts. We are collectively thrilled to see a real pup (Doris) take the role before the collar is handed over to an equally delightful puppet counterpart (Director: Rachel Leonard, Designer: Charlie Tymms), puppeteered by Ailsa Dalling whose charming work gives Toto centre stage in our attentions and affections. Even when he’s merely on the margins having a cheeky wee!
Also impressing in the cast is the great Angela Wynter who doubles as both the warm, homely Aunt Em and the wise-with-an-edge good witch Glinda. Wynter takes a grand turn as the beacon of hope and truth out in Oz, a role captured as readily by her rather regal performance as costuming, which sees Wynter decked out in gown and grandeur. And then there’s the marvellous Polly Lister who plays the Wicked Witch at full throttle for every single moment she is on stage. In an indefatigable performance which gets the biggest laughs (the flying monkey sequence is a corker) and the best dramatic impact, she proves loud and proud and definitively that the villain is always the best role to play – put it this way, if it’s a role half as much fun to play as she makes it look, Lister is in for a wild ride over the next few months.
With this production, director James Brining offers up a stage show fitted with bells and whistles aplenty alongside the unshakeable nostalgic escapism of this tale. Harold Arlen and E.Y.Hamburg’s music and lyrics for this show can only ever warm hearts and take us all the way to Kansas and Oz and back by our ears. Lucy Cullingford’s choreography shines most brightly in the adorable young ensemble numbers and the musical highlight of this show: Jitterbug, which brings the stage to life with gleeful energised movement…which is somewhat monopolised by the Wicked Witch…in the best of ways.
While Brining and team do justice to that sense of this being a great classic of the stage and screen, the story is offered up with plenty of bold contemporary embellishments. Simon Higlett makes darn sure we get the full Oz experience of rainbows and dazzling emerald worlds, delivering colourful, playful costuming and striking, large scale set pieces (all given an extra layer of shine via Tim Mitchell’s lighting design). We’re treated to aerial sequences, entertaining comings and goings via a revolve and quirky fly-in entrances. Creative video projections (Simon Wainwright) conjure places and fears and people – all painted in lovely technicolour and whipped away as quickly as they arrived. Even the famous yellow brick road gets a playful, interactive outing here thanks to some quirky projection design. And that’s modern stage wizardry for you!
All in, this a wonderful show for all the family to enjoy and whether you’re a fan of the classic and traditional or the whizzy and modern, there’s something for everyone here – if panto isn’t your bag, joining Dorothy and co. in the land of Oz is a cracking alternative!
The Wizard of Oz is a Leeds Playhouse production. It plays until January 25th 2020 and you can find tickets here. Running time: 2 hours 50 including interval.
Images: Richard Davenport/ Richard Lakos.