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.

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