Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Wizard of Oz - London Palladium, Friday 6th January 2012

Dorothy – Danielle Hope
Aunt Em – Kate Coysten
Uncle Henry/Guard – Stephen Scott
Hickory/Tin Man – Edward Baker-Duly
Zeke/Lion – David Ganly
Hunk/Scarecrow – Paul Keating
Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch – Marianne Benedict
Glinda – Emily Tierney
Professor Marvel/Wizard/Doorman – Michael Crawford

Creative Team:
Additional Lyrics – Tim Rice
Additional Music – Andrew Lloyd Webber
Director – Jeremy Sams
Lighting – Hugh Vanstone
Choreographer – Arlene Phillips

You know, I really am getting sick to the back teeth of the Andrew Lloyd Webber juggernaut, which rolls on and crushes great theatre under its wheels. Once again, ALW has persuaded the BBC to give him hours of prime-time advertising under the auspices of a “search for new talent”, has persuaded the Great British Public to part with its hard-earned by promising a vast, exciting phantasmagoria and has churned out a cheap, damp squib masquerading as a wonderful new reinterpretation of a much-loved classic piece of history. Not content with butchering Oliver and The Sound of Music, ALW now turns his attention to possibly the best-loved film Hollywood ever made (at least his next outing will be to butcher one of his own works – rumour is that the next BBC talent show will be to look for a new Jesus for Superstar, a thought that fills me with dread). What really pisses me off about ALW is that he promises everything and delivers precious little, much like the title character of this show. Its all smoke and mirrors. ALW has the money and the talent pool to present something spectacular beyond our wildest dreams, and what we eventually get once again is him as Chief Peddler of Tat to The Masses.

Regardless of the fact that The Wizard of Oz is a classic loved by millions with a glorious score, ALW is so convinced of his own superiority that he can’t resist fiddling with it and stamping his tawdry mark all over it. So he’s re-written a script which doesn’t need re-writing (at the expense of several characters), turned it into a star vehicle for Michael Crawford, shoved some of his own music into it (mercifully, most of it is instantly forgettable), stripped out a great deal of the wonderful orchestrations from the film soundtrack and thrown onto the enormous stage of The Palladium an ensemble of 20 who look completely lost on it. They’ve been directed and choreographed (if I can call it that – both are horrifically and woefully thin) with the absolute minimum of effort and with a tiny orchestra and some truly lousy scenery and yet Joe Public lap it up by the bucketful and shout for more. Honestly, I don’t know whether I was more disappointed by this show or by the undiscriminating idiots who think that ALW shits pure gold. Its not as if it hasn’t happened before. But nobody takes any notice of the man behind the curtain who is pulling the levers and throwing glitter in their eyes until they can no longer see his deception clearly enough to call “foul”.

OK, he was up against the films’ reputation and that of its star, so he was on the back foot to start with. This is the stuff that peoples’ memories are made of, and you fuck with that at your peril. But instead of giving us what we want, ALW gives us what he thinks we should have. Take the character of the Wicked Witch of the West. What we want is Margaret Hamilton screeching and cackling in a black pointed hat but what we get is a WWotW watered down to the point where the character becomes merely eccentric – think of the Bette Midler character in the film Hocus Pocus – wearing a split skirt, lacy tights and knee-high boots. There’s no real evil here, and the revisionist script doesn’t help. We want Dorothy sitting on a piece of farm machinery with Toto, backlight against the sunset and tearing our hearts out with Somewhere over the Rainbow while birds sing in the distance. What we get is Danielle Hope front and centre on an almost completely darkened stage, wearing a pair of dungarees and not coming anywhere close to the emotional pull that you get when watching the film. We want dozens of Munchkins waving goodbye as Glinda disappears in a big pink soap bubble, and what we get is ten children backed up by five adult ensemble members waving goodbye as Glinda hitches up her skirt and strolls off Stage Right. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a set so paltry as this Munchkinland, which seems to consist of a small hillock covered in that green pretend grass you used to see in butchers shop windows, dotted with tissue paper flowers that look as if the local primary school kids have made them in a craft lesson. ALW’s bank balance runs into untold millions, yet this Wizard of Oz feels for the most part skimped and cheap. I sat open-mouthed at the gimcrack paltriness of the poppyfield scenery. And the emotional quality is lacking too – just like the man made of tin, this production has no heart. It’s a cynical money-making exercise for ALW, never mind the quality, feel the width. Nearly everything about this show – the amount of people on stage, the orchestra, the orchestrations - needs to be doubled up before it really befits the stage of the London Palladium.

I missed the wonderful underscoring of the original film music. There were no fighting apple trees, no “If I Were King of the Forest” for the Cowardly lion. I didn’t like the way the break between the acts was moved to the point where the Wizard instructs Dorothy and her friends to go and kill the WWotW (ensuring that Mr. Crawford could end the first act by booming through the auditorium in exactly the same fashion as he did in Phantom of the Opera). I hated that there wasn’t a drop of water, real or otherwise, in the bucket that Dorothy dumps over the WWotW.

I did like the fact that the costumes were clearly based on the illustrations from the original book. I did like the fact that the Tin Man was played butch, forming a very solid centre to the ensemble of four who were clearly working as a team, bouncing off each other with no obvious “star” and no obvious “underdog”. I did like the fact that the Cowardly Lion wasn’t played as a raving poofter. I did think the Witches’ castle set was spectacular (no hourglass though – shame). I did think that Danielle Hope gave it her best shot. But I would rather pay to see Ravensbourne Light Opera Society’s amateur production of The Wizard of Oz at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley again were it possible than Mr. Lloyd Webber’s current offering. Yes, I am a grouchy old bugger on occasion and I’ve had readers of this blog wonder publicly whether I like anything but I was so disappointed last night that I could have cried. Like I said, you fuck with a classic at your peril.

One of the pro critics called this production “soullessly efficient” and I would heartily agree. You’d be far better off renting the DVD and settling in with a pot of tea and a packet of chocolate HobNobs on a rainy afternoon to ensure that the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.
What the critics thought:

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These are my opinions. I am entitled to them. As you are to yours. If you are going to respond to my opinions, at least make your responses worthwile. Vitriol is pointless. And more importantly, won't get published - so you'll be shouting in the dark.