The Wizard of Oz

Theatre: London Palladium
Performance date: 18 April 2012
Starring: Russell Grant, Sophie Evans

A fun night out but the dog outshines the humans

When I listed my top ten movie musicals a couple of months back I took a little bit of stick for not including The Wizard Of Oz . How could I exclude such a classic musical and include instead young pretenders like Chicago and Hairspray? I admit it was a bit of a struggle to come up with my list and The Wizard of Oz went on, then came off it again. Several times. The Wizard of Oz was the first film that I owned on VHS and I was totally blown away by the magic of cinema, particularly the transformation from black and white Kansas to Technicolor Oz.

I followed the Andrew Lloyd Webber BBC talent-spotting show, Over the Rainbow, which was searching for a Dorothy for a new West End stage version. Although I enjoyed it none of the girls particularly inspired me or stuck in my mind the way that previous winners of similar shows had. The new production opened at the London Palladium last year to generally good reviews with winner Danielle Hope playing Dorothy and musicals legend Michael Crawford as The Wizard. Cast changes earlier this year brought runner-up Sophie Evans and everyone’s favourite Strictly Come Dancing contestant Russell Grant to the leading roles.

The story of Dorothy, the Kansas girl who gets trapped in a magical land following a tornado, is well-known and little new is brought to the narrative here – although there are a couple of original Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice songs added in to give the show a little more bulk. The stage show doesn’t wander too far off track from the movie and even the impressive special lighting effects which represent the tornado include the flying cow from the film.

Sophie Evans is sweet and feisty as Dorothy. She’s no Judy Garland but her performance of Over the Rainbow was strong and contained a healthy dose of emotion. Much as I love Russell Grant, he was the weakest member of the cast – his American accent was awful and quite distracting. He does though have a great stage presence and a desire to entertain that helped to make up for any flaws in the performance.

As the “Friends of Dorothy” Edward Baker-Duly (Tin-Man), Martin Callaghan (Cowardly Lion) and Paul Keating as the Scarecrow were all fabulous. Keating has a great gift for physical comedy and was throwing himself all over the stage and Callaghan was deliciously camp as the poor lion desperate for some courage. Wicked Witch, Marianne Benedict, had some of the best moments in the show including a scary-looking flight over the audience and a great performance of new song Red Show Blues. I was almost on her side at times she was so good at being bad. Of course all of the human performers were completely undermined by the little Westie playing Toto. The audience melted every time he came on stage. I’m not a fan of performing animals but even I can’t see any way around having a dog on stage for such a pivotal role. At least he was replaced with a stuffed toy for some of the louder and more physical scenes.

The production design by Robert Jones is outstanding and brings some of the magic of the cinema to the West End stage. This is a classy, impressive production of a much loved tale and fans of the film will adore it.

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