The Wizard of Oz – Review – Sheffield Lyceum Theatre

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By Clare Jenkins, February 2024

Somewhere over the rainbow, there’s Judy Garland on a rundown Kansas farm, singing about lullabies and lemon drops and happy little bluebirds, wishing upon stars, and mingling with Opal Fruits-coloured Munchkins. All the time tightly clutching her long-suffering dog Toto in her arms.

Seventy-five years on from the MGM film and the past is indeed a foreign country, where they do things differently. Just as the multi-coloured 1960s sweeties were eventually rebranded Starbursts, so L. Frank Baum’s much-loved fairytale has been rebranded into a dizzying, dazzling starburst of amusement arcade video games, giant-screen road movie, 1950s Hollywood musical and Noughties drag club.

Instead of the stereotypically black-clad, hook-nosed Wicked Witch of the 1947 film, we have the luminously green, black-and-purple sequined swirl of The Vivienne, ‘the UK’s No.1 drag superstar’ of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Dancing on Ice fame (those heels! That Ginger Rogers hair!!).

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Instead of Toto the Cairn terrier, we have a scene-stealing puppet dog, seamlessly manipulated round the stage by Tyler Ephraim. And Glinda the Good Witch (Emily Bull) is recreated as Barbie in sparkling pink tulle on a similarly pink Vespa.

Aviva Tulley has big (bright and glittery) ruby slippers to fill as Dorothy, the young girl running away from her rural home to save her beloved dog. She fills them sweetly, with a combination of touching innocence and restrained humour.

As every fool doth know, a tornado transfers her and Toto from the quiet of Kansas to the mayhem of Oz, a surreal land inhabited by Munchkins. Played here by adults, the Munchkins offer more than a touch of Dame Edna Everage and Grayson Perry in their vibrant costumes. In the psychedelic poppy scene, three of them are also disguised as Magritte-style scarlet hatstand, lampshade and TV.

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En route to Oz, Dorothy joins forces with her aunt and uncle’s three farmhands, now transformed into the heartless tin man (Marley Fenton), the cowardly lion (Nic Greenshields) and the brainless scarecrow (Benjamin Yates). They make a wonderful trio, what with Fenton’s hip-hop-cum-ballet movements, Greenshields’ large and lumbering cowardice (complete with blonde bombshell mane), and Yates’s red-neck rodeo cowboy charm. Alex Bourne, meanwhile, is a droll wizard in peach and apple suit, Hockney-esque glasses and gently glowing green beard.

Reimagined by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams, with a scattering of new songs from Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the show began life at the London Palladium. Maybe that theatre can absorb the sound more, because at the Lyceum the over-amplified live orchestra at times drowns the lyrics, leaving the cast struggling to make themselves heard.

Under Nikolai Foster’s direction, the action moves at a turbo-charged pace through an hallucinogenic 3D landscape, along a Yellow Brick Road of road signs and arrows (and cabin crew in Sherbet Lemon uniforms – keep up), culminating in the dystopia of Emerald City.

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Here, The Vivienne’s spell-binding witch is surrounded by hideous flying monkeys and a Soviet-style army of slave soldiers. There’s more than a touch of Orwell in the mix, too, what with the word CONFORM projected onto the screen and the clock counting down to doom. And the witch’s exit, whilst more smoke than fire, is as dramatic as her entrance.

So it’s loud, it’s head-spinning, it’s fun, but it’s not necessarily for the faint-hearted. Tip: take earplugs.

‘The Wizard of Oz’ is at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre until Saturday 3rd February before continuing its tour


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