Friday 25 November 2022

The Wizard of Oz

 Curve, Leicester

24th November, 2022

Where troubles melt like lemon drops

The Wizard of Oz was one of the first musicals I ever saw on a school trip to Leicester’s Haymarket in 2000. It was one of many introductions to theatre that got me hooked for life. Jump forward two decades, and seeing the many young families in the audience at Curve last night, it’s great to think that Nikolai Foster’s new production will introduce a whole new generation to the theatre. Made famous by the 1939 motion picture, Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s musical The Wizard of Oz has been staged countless times from the RSC to Madison Square Gardens. It’s a part of American culture and has even inspired other work from The Wiz to Wicked to great acclaim. In this new Made at Curve production, adapted by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams with additional music by Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, it is L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel that Foster has mined to present an American fairy tale with plenty of wit, heart and courage.

At the core of The Wizard of Oz is a tension between the push-and-pull of home, the grey humdrum routine pitted against the allure of elsewhere. In ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, that great “hymn to Elsewhere” as Salman Rushdie called it, Georgina Onuorah’s Dorothy yearns to escape Kansas farm life. As the song swells, Ben Thompson’s animated Toto leaps around Dorothy and cocks his head as Onuorah’s voice fills the auditorium and our hearts. Lloyd Webber’s new songs further this idea. In Professor Marvel’s ‘Wonders of the World’, he sells Dorothy a vision of seeing the world: “New York City, glass and metal/Everest unconquered mountain”. Dorothy’s journey to an unknown world has been dazzlingly realised by Foster using Route 66 to take us from the American frontier to a Las Vegas-inspired Emerald City.

Along the way we meet the intellectually challenged Scarecrow, played as a lovable yokel by Curve regular Jonny Fines, the stoic soldier-esque Tin Man (Paul French) with a tendency to cry himself into rusty stasis, and the burly-but-bashful Lion (Giovanni Spanó). The trio team up with Dorothy and Toto to form a rag-tag quintet of wandering souls, the chemistry between them wonderful. The characterisation of the characters is where Shay Barclay’s choreography shines. From the Scarecrow flip-flopping about the stage and sliding down the yellow brick road, to the Tin Man’s stiff, robotic movements, Barclay and the actors really nail the physical embodiment of the characters.

As we go west along the yellow brick road, we’re introduced to an Oz dripping in capitalism. The Disneyfication (or Ozneyfication) of Emerald City is a joy to discover. You’ll find your eyes poring over Colin Richmond’s spectacular design and Douglas O’Connell’s impressive projections to spot the Americana in which everything from corn cans to petrol tanks are stamped with the Oz brand. O’Connell’s video design elaborates this further. In the heart of Emerald City, we see McOznald’s, Ozbuck Coffee, and productions of The Wiz and The Return to Oz advertised on skyscrapers. Even the Poppy Hill Motel is inspired by the hotel in Hitchcock’s Psycho hinting at a more sinister side. Like Vegas itself, whilst the neon lights and sugar rush may provide Dorothy with a glimpse of life away from Kansas, Oz is a dizzying sight which has her yearning for the safety of home. Rachael Canning’s costumes enhance the Americana and provide granular texture: Tin Man tattooed with corporate logos; The Lion in American football gear; Glinda’s Penelope Pitstop-inspired entrance outfit; the Flying Monkeys sporting denim biker jackets. All of these design elements speak the same language and Foster has brilliantly brought them together so there is a cohesiveness between them.

There’s a lot to admire here. I particularly liked George Dyer’s musical arrangements: ‘The Merry Old Land of Oz’ has moved away from the saccharine tune it is in the film to a punchier melody which befits the Oz we see on stage. I also really enjoyed seeing a new take on the Wizard/Professor Marvel. Played brilliantly here by Mark Peachey, these characters are less the aging cynical trickster and more an optimistic showman trying to peddle an unachievable dream. Ellie Mitchell (stepping into the role at the last minute) and Christina Bianco are equally fabulous as the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda respectively. Mitchell provides a more modern take on the villain, overseeing an oil drilling industry. In Lloyd Webber’s standout addition of ‘Red Shoes Blues’ which shows some of the witch’s motivation (“She's prissy, she's clueless, and I want her shoeless”) Mitchell’s vocals shine.

With the movie embedded in our consciousness, staging a new production must be a daunting prospect. In a sharp production which comes in just over 2 hours there are a lot of ideas to unpack and it passes in a flash occasionally like a fever dream. But there’s no doubting this Wizard of Oz is fun, revitalised and spectacular.

The Wizard of Oz plays at Curve, Leicester until 8th January, 2023. For more information please visit The Wizard Of Oz - Curve Theatre, Leicester (

Paul French (Tin Man), Jonny Fines (Scarecrow), Giovanni Spanó (Lion), Georgina Onuorah (Dorothy) and Ben Thompson (Toto) in The Wizard of Oz. Credit: Marc Brenner.

Tuesday 15 November 2022

Kimberly Akimbo

 Booth Theatre, New York

13th October, 2022 (Preview)

I like your point of view

In a recent NY Times interview, playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and composer Jeanine Tesori reflected on their time collaborating on Shrek the Musical (2008). Whilst adapting the 2001 DreamWorks movie, the pair expressed a wish to make a musical together with the same intensity and focus as writing a play. The result, after a seven-year passion project, is Kimberly Akimbo: a musical based on Lindsay-Abaire’s 2001 play of the same name about a 16-year-old girl who has the body of a 72-year-old. Following an award-winning Off-Broadway run last year, the musical has now opened on Broadway. On its second preview, Kimberly Akimbo is a heart-warming, nourishing musical and a first-rate example of book and score complementing each other beautifully.

Using Lindsay-Abaire’s play as the main source provides the musical with a book which has a solid structure. Set in late 90s New Jersey, the show focuses on Kimberly Levaco and her dysfunctional family. Having recently moved house due to her aunt assaulting their neighbour, Kimberly has to balance making new friends at the local rink with hiding her dad’s alcoholism from her mom, herself a bit of a wastrel. But Kimberly is no ordinary teenager. Born with a disease that ages her body abnormally quickly, we hear that most people with her condition only have a life expectancy of about 16 years. Like with his Good People (2011), Lindsay-Abaire is interested in the promises and rhetoric of the American Dream not being fully realised; characters with imperfections and major flaws but with hopes, fears and good intentions buried somewhere beneath the surface. And in the centre of the storm is Kimberly, played with such authenticity by Tony Award-winning soprano Victoria Clark. We not only believe she’s 16 but her optimistic outlook and bright sparkle in her eyes is endearing without ever being overly sentimental.

The believable characters and strong plot are both enhanced by Tesori’s music. Like in Fun Home (2013), her playful melodies crack open the characters’ inner lives to give them depth. In ‘Make A Wish’, we hear Kimberly’s letter to New Jersey’s Make A Wish Foundation who’ll choose only one of her three wishes. “I bet you pick whatever’s cheapest, haha, smiley face” is typical of her warm humour. Whereas her first two wishes are fun and typical of a teenager, the song becomes an ever-growing list of things Kimberly, like any normal teenager, would wish for. The relentlessness then halts to allow Kimberly to wistfully long for a simple homecooked family meal. In ‘Anagram’ we see Kimberly inwardly work through her feelings for her nerdy classmate Seth: “A little odd, a little off, a bit unorthodox”. The simple melody powerfully grows to her realising she likes him. This is accompanied by Seth, who shares Lindsay-Abaire’s love of word games, working out an anagram of her name. Recognition has to go to Justin Cooley as Seth. Only Murders in the Building has taught us of the gems of multi-generational friendships (although here they’re the same age), and the innocent chemistry between Clark and Cooley is pitched at exactly the right level.

Kimberly’s maturity and optimism are at odds with her family of reprobates. Their immaturity is the source of much of the show’s humour, but the songs expand their characters to give further insight into their pain. Aware that their daughter may not live much longer, and expecting another imminently, we begin to understand how their first-time round being parents has both been not long enough and also painfully drawn out. And what cracking songs they are! In ‘Hello, Darling’, Alli Mauzey’s accident-prone Patti expresses her hopes for her new born and her fears she’ll have the same condition as Kimberly. In the fast-paced patter song ‘Happy For Her’, Steven Boyer displays tongue-twisting verbal dexterity on a drive to school in which he plays the over-protective father. But the show’s breakout star is Bonnie Milligan as Aunt Debra. ‘Better’, an upbeat hymn to do whatever it takes to “make your shitty life better”, is a hilarious skewering of the typical ‘feel-good’ song.

If Lindsay-Abaire creates a believable world, it is meticulously rendered by David Zinn: a cluttered kitchen diner complete with Maxwell house coffee tub; the school hallway; an ice rink complete with snow and real onstage skating. And when the side wall opens up to reveal Kimberly’s bedroom, we can see the same level of detail go right into the wings. Ice skating pictures and Dawson’s Creek posters adorn the walls, and a globe and giraffe teddy show what she still dreams of doing.

Kimberly Akimbo is destined to be the musical of the season and I’ll be rooting for it at next year’s Tony’s. Running through Times Square in the pouring rain afterwards didn’t hamper us sharing the show’s upbeat view on life. Indeed, “When life gives you lemons… you’ve got to go out and steal some apples because who the fuck wants lemons?!”

Kimberly Akimbo plays at the Booth Theatre, New York, booking to April 2023. For further information, please visit

Victoria Clark in Kimberly Akimbo. Credit: Joan Marcus

Thursday 3 November 2022

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

 Curve, Leicester

Wednesday 2nd November 2022

Land of the living dead

Deborah Moggach’s book, These Foolish Things, is perhaps better known for its starry 2011 film adaptation The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which spawned an unlikely reality-tv franchise, and delighted viewers young and old with its ‘fish-out-of-water’ quaintness. Now Moggach adapts her work for a new theatre tour, offering audiences a warming dose of genteel patter amidst sultry tropical climes.

Having recently taken over the family Hotel business in Bangalore, young Sonny hatches a plan to boost income by offering British retirees assisted living accommodation with lashings of sunshine, bottomless gin and tonics and an iffy culinary mix of tikka masala and toad in the hole. When the Brits arrive there’s the usual clash of cultures – the Brits are shocked by the caste system, while the Indians muse upon English rules of politeness – but, predictably, the characters all learn from each other and the experience enriches their lives.

Despite a large cast of characters, I felt that Moggach never really got under their skin, and the result is that most feel underdeveloped and one-note – the anti-woke boor, the glamourous cougar, the holier-than-thou xenophile. This also extends to the depiction of India in the play, which, despite some underpowered attempts to address colonialism, is rather trite and reliant on stereotype. The India presented is one defined by call centres, ‘Delhi-belly’, arranged marriages and a love of cricket – a pretty blinkered and British view of the culture.

Moggach fares better when touching on the poignancies of growing older. The hotel guests feel young at heart, but often speak of society’s tendency to view them as already ‘half-dead’. This theme of trying to recapture youth is more tangibly addressed in Dorothy’s (Richenda Carey) mysterious search for her childhood friend - who turns out to be much closer to home than she’d anticipated. The loneliness of old age is also tenderly explored. At one point Hayley Mills’ Evelyn regrets all the things she never got to talk about with her late husband. The initially timid character has a more natural evolution throughout the play, growing with confidence as she makes friends and learns to express herself. Yet, in her quietly blossoming relationship with Paul Nicholas’ Douglas, the feelings left unspoken between the pair hint once more at the old-fashioned British restraint the OAPs are fleeing from. I enjoyed Mills’ more nuanced performance, which plays nicely on her earnest likability.

While I found The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel rather sedate and over-long (at least 40 minutes could be cut from the running time), I appreciate that I am probably not its target audience. Those around us were audibly enjoying the play, chuckling along in recognition, creating an endearing atmosphere. The production benefits greatly from Colin Richmond’s sumptuous design and Kuljit Bhamra’s original music, which is both upbeat and evocative, making for a sweet and feel-good finale.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel plays at Leicester’s Curve until 5th November as part of an extensive UK and Ireland tour until June 2023, including a run on a transatlantic cruise in December. For further information please visit 

Hayley Mills and Rula Lenska in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Credit: Johan Persson