The Wizard of Oz – Review – Leeds Playhouse
By Gail Schuster, November 2019
The perennially popular family favourite, The Wizard of Oz is the recently refurbished and renamed Leeds Playhouse’s Christmas production, and it is a cracker. According to Artistic Director James Brining, the eagerly awaited festive shows try to deliver “an inclusive, celebratory, spectacular theatrical experience,” and this certainly achieves that.
Most people will be familiar with the story from the 1939 Judy Garland film but may not realise it was based on the first book published by Lyman Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz which was published in 1900. Altogether Baum wrote 14 novels in the Oz series amongst many other literary works and produced three silent films based on the Oz stories before Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer made the timeless Garland movie.
“Family and belonging as central themes”
The Hollywood favourite is on our televisions regularly and will probably be shown over the festive period, but surprisingly it was not an overnight success with the public or the critics. It cost MGM studios $2.75 million to make and took more than 20 years before it recouped its costs, not something that tinseltown would countenance today.
For those looking for a family outing to please all age groups this production is perfect. It isn’t a Christmas-themed show, indeed the only tinsel to be found is in the haunted forest, but it has instead family and belonging as central themes – perhaps a reason why it has been embraced by marginalised groups over the years.
Local girl Lucy Sherman played Dorothy on Tuesday evening; her singing voice is beautiful, and she performed the brave, orphaned heroine magnificently. All the more impressive given that she is just 14 years old! The main role is shared between Lucy and Agatha Meehan, aged 12 from York. Lucy even has to contend with two extremely endearing and charming dogs, a real-life Toto in the Kansas scenes and a strikingly clever puppet in Oz, whose mannerisms were very realistic in the capable hands of puppeteer Ailsa Dalling.
Polly Lister was wonderful as the heartless neighbour, Miss Gulch and the nasty, screeching, cackling, camp Wicked Witch of the West, whom the audience loved to boo and hiss. Dorothy’s motley collection of travelling companions depicted by Marcus Ayton, the humorous cowardly lion, Sam Harrison and Eleanor Sutton who performed the parts of the Tin Man and Scarecrow respectively, along with their Kansas counterparts all worked well together. I especially enjoyed Sutton’s interpretation of the scarecrow and her rendition of ‘If I Only Had a Brain’.
“Main characters are wonderful”
The distant, worn-down Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are portrayed competently by Angela Wynter and Phil Cole, who also double up as Glinda, the glamorous, glitzy gold clad witch of the south and the wizard’s guard at the Emerald City. All the main characters are wonderful in their roles, including Graham Hoadley as the self-centred Oz and dodgy professor.
Costumes, lighting, makeup and scenery all combine in this production to highlight the striking difference between the dusty, dull, make-do-and-mend of the Kansas farm that is home, shown by the minimal staging of the farmhouse at one side and a grain silo at the other, and the bright, colourful fantasy land of Oz. I was in awe of how quickly Dorothy’s friends got their makeup off and reappeared in Kansas at the end. Perhaps there really was some magic going on?
There are some lovely theatrical touches throughout; the flying monkeys on bungee ropes, the melting of the wicked witch and the portrayal of the storm that whisks Dorothy away to Oz. The latter utilises dance, acrobatics, projection and music to encapsulate the chaos of being inside a twister. I also enjoyed the song and dance spectacle of the Jitterbug scene.
This version of The Wizard of Oz is vibrant and inclusive and will not disappoint children new to the story, nor adults who may be long term devotees. It is a wonderful and fresh take on an old favourite, which manages to successfully retain the essential qualities with which people are familiar.
images: The Other Richard