“The Wizard of Oz” is the greatest English language fairy story of the 20th century, and the best ever to come out of America. Its appeal is pan-generational, with those who enjoyed it as children now sharing the magic with grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Written by Frank Baum in 1900, it is best known for the 1939 film production. Musical purists will claim that it is a story with songs rather than a musical, with some justification. At its core it is a morality tale about self- worth . Director Jen Eglinton opts for a faithful retelling of the film which we all know and love.
This was my first visit to the Rose Theatre . I could not help but be impressed by the modern, comfortable, and spacious surroundings, as well as the warm welcome. The Nonentities set themselves quite a challenge in tackling this show, with its numerous technical features and multiple set changes, as well as multiple characters requiring lots of costume changes.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is artistic. The very first song is one of the greatest standards, “Over the Rainbow”, sung solo with no ensemble overture preamble , just keyboard accompaniment. Jessica Schneider (Dorothy) rises to the task well. Harold Arden’s melody is beautiful, the lyrics, by Yip Harburg ( who also wrote them for” Springtime in Paris “and “Brother Can You Spare a Dime”) are sublime. Its themes are of innocence and experience, dream and disillusion. When sung by a child it tells of innocence, by a young woman it is hopeful, by an older person it is a melancholic lament. A huge challenge for any singer for whom the ghost of a young and old Judy Garland stalks any performance. Jessica pitches it as a song of innocence, shouldering the responsibility of the opening number with calm authority. However her stiff wig was a constant visual irritation.
Before the storm hits Aunt Em’s farm in Kansas, the first set of characters are introduced from whom Joe Harper stands out, first as Hickory, then as the Scarecrow, whilst also producing the video footage of the storm in between. Harper is the energy which drives the show forwards, funny, charismatic, and with thoughtful characterisation, whether he is front of stage stealing the limelight, or supporting from the chorus. The scarecrow’s sidekicks are an energetic Bob Graham as the Lion, and a far from creaky Andy Bingham as the Tin Man.
The multiple sets are simple but effective with stage manager Hilary Thompson expertly marshalling the many set changes as Toto entertained the audience first snuggling up to Dorothy and then, with good judgement, biting Miss Gulch who doubles as the Wicked Witch, played with a twinkle in her evil eye by Hannah Tolley ,who revelled in her anti-hero persona. Richard Taylor entertains as Prof Marvel whilst playing sympathetically the bombastic Oz.
Tori Wakeman was suitably mumsy as Aunt Em, coming into her own as the Good Witch Glinda which gave her the opportunity to show off her fine soprano voice. Music was provided by Musical Director Keith Rowland who had the formidable task of fleshing out the sound for some big numbers with just a keyboard, working non-stop throughout the show. However for a show with a large, able and well costumed cast, the limitations of the accompaniment weakened the impact of several of the musical numbers, particularly “Follow the Yellow Brick road”.
The stand out ensemble set piece arrived when the cast arrived in the Emerald City, richly costumed, and presented with brio and enthusiasm, it was the point at which the evening took off.
The opening night audience warmly acknowledged the cast’s efforts for the curtain call, efforts which grew in confidence as the evening unfolded. Jen Eglinton has produced a show which is faithful to its antecedents for aficionados of the story and fun for the youngsters who are seeing and feeling the magic for the first time. It runs till Saturday 5th December.
This review first appeared in Behind the Arras, abridged, where a comprehensive collection of reviews from the best of Midlands theatre, from a range of reviewers, is available.