There are times when I wish that I didn’t review theatre productions and last night at The Leeds Playhouse watching The Wizard of Oz was one of them. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t because I didn’t like it, quite the reverse, it was so good I would have loved to have put my notebook and pen in my pocket and just got carried away by the experience rather than have to analyse the sound, lighting, choreography and the myriad other components which went into the production of this piece.
When I say that there were lots of aspects to the show I really mean it. Director, James Brining, had somehow brought together the combined considerable talents of the creative team and actors but more of that later. There were so many facets to this show that it is difficult not to include any spoilers as there were some great effects which relied on the shock factor.
There are two girls who play the role of Dorothy; Lucy Sherman, who took the role on the night I visited, and Agatha Meehan who do alternate dates. They are each paired up with a different Toto, Lucy has Doris and Angela has Scruff. This gives a bond between girl and dog which was evident right from the start and had us in the palm of the director’s hand straight away. Actually there are three Totos, the third is a puppet operated by Ailsa Dalling and designed by Charlie Tymms. It even had its own director in Rachael Leonard. No expense spared nor corner cut.
The set and costume designer was Simon Higlett and a magnificent job he did on both fronts. There was a clever use of a couple of wooden buildings on stage which served multiple purposes with a turntable built into the stage enabling two semicircular structures to come together thus shielding the rear whilst the rest of the props were arranged to indicate the location of the action. The costumes were stunning and humorously chosen. One example was the Cowardly Lion who was portrayed as a boxer with a vest that read ‘Chump’ when he first appeared but changed to ‘Champ’ when he showed his true self.
The ensemble were immaculately turned out for their dance routines and there were three apple trees whose outfits were very inventive. I must say though that the Wicked Witch of the West played by Polly Lister cast a spell on me in her black leather catsuit, I have tried putting on my red slippers and kicking my heels but I can’t escape. The way in which she made her first entrance on stage was amazing, no spoiler. Speaking of red slippers, Dorothy’s Ruby pair was fantastic with the light being reflected from them in an unfeasibly intense way.
As well as the physical sets there was a series of video effects which were brilliantly done. On some occasions, as with the tornado in the first act, a thin white curtain provided the screen for the projections which enabled characters to be seen behind the action. When the semicircular set was in place there were images shone on it to provide context, whether it was Dorothy’s cell or The Emerald City. The video was also projected onto the stage itself to act as The Yellow Brick Road and even this was done with a sense of humour. The video, associated lighting and sound were handled in breathtaking manner by Simon Wainwright, Tim Mitchell and Ben Harrison respectively. The overall effect was so overwhelming at times that it was difficult to separate their contributions.
I could just imagine the meeting where the production was first pitched with the director saying, ‘OK, we have a great set, wonderful costumes, stunning video installations, an amazing soundtrack with lots of singers and dancers. We’ve got a real dog and a puppet version for the set pieces, a phenomenal cast of actors, a couple of items of the set which rise into the air and dock on high platforms either side of the stage, what else can we add to stop it from becoming boring. Oh yes, how about a couple of acrobats who perform from lengths of white material dropped from the ceiling and then we could use them later in another capacity which I won’t tell you about as I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Yes, that should do it. We could get Tim Claydon to direct that part.’ Sadly the acrobats are not credited specifically in the programme.
There is no point in going through the plot as I think that everyone has seen the film or at least knows about it. There are some deviations in this production from the movie and even more from the original book but it is near enough to be recognisable albeit with updated features so as to be more inclusive. Whatever the story it is the entertainment value that counts in a family Christmas show and this had it by the bucketload, you will see the relevance of that expression towards the end of the play.
I must credit the cast now. They were all brilliant but the 14 year-old Lucy Sherman was a consummate actor, singer and dancer. Doris, as Toto was superb in the first act but came over as a bit of a diva when reappearing towards the end, probably too much overindulging in the dressing room. All of the other actors played dual roles and did it extremely well, even the puppet operator Alisa Dalling played a farmhand before exercising her animation skills. This multitasking was facilitated by their having one role in the initial homestead scene before the tornado and then their fantasy role during the search for the Wizard.
Polly Lister spanned the gamut of female characters because, as well as playing the leather-clad Wicked Witch, she began as the tweed suited school ma’am spinster lady figure, Miss Gulch. Some of her mannerisms when playing the witch, which she did with both terror and humour, reminded me of the late American comedienne Phylis Diller in her poses and timing. I couldn’t give a higher compliment. The only difference was that Ms Diller could play the witch with no make up at all (I’m not being insulting here, it was part of her act). Hickory and The Tin Man were played by Sam Harrison who was not only made of tin but was also gay and in a doomed relationship with the woodcutter. I am sure that he was brilliant at this but I have no experience of such a scenario with which to draw comparison. Whatever, he carried the part off superbly, as did Eleanor Sutton as the Hunk and the Scarecrow. Once again the comic timing was spot on.
The final member of the trio who accompany Dorothy on her search for the Wizard was Marcus Ayton who, after playing Zeke, the simpleton with a heart at the beginning, became the Cowardly Lion. Not only was his acting and comedy superb but his singing voice was worth the price of admission on its own. It was a cross between an operatic baritone and a sixties soul singer with a resonance to make the china clatter. I have rarely heard anything like it before. The parts of Aunt Emily and Glinda were taken by Angela Wynter who was well up to the standard of the others and must have nerves of steel to make her entrance and exit as the latter the way in which she did.
Once in Emerald City we met the Guard, who had previously been Uncle Harry, played by Phil Cole. He was an avuncular figure in the second role as well as the first – obviously; an elderly chap who kept making mistakes – scripted I have to add. Being in possession of a mirror, I did have model for this role although his mistakes are not scripted! Finally we have the Professor from the first section who goes on to become The Wizard. Two more outstanding performances.
Other things to note about the cast is that the Munchkins are all played by children which gives the piece a more natural feel, and the Ensemble, who did the singing, dancing and playing apple trees, were incredible, each and every one.
You obviously can’t have a musical without music and this was handled superbly by The Wizard of Oz Band under the Musical Director, Tamara Sarringer, with assistance from Candida Caldicot the Musical Supervisor who was also responsible for additional orchestrations and the vocal arrangements. Wonderful.
There is one person who, to me, shone out more than all of the brilliant cast and creatives, and that was Karen Seabrook. You will not find her name in the credits of the cast or the creative team but she made it possible for some theatregoers to enjoy the show as much as everyone else in that she was the woman in black standing at the front and to one side of the stage signing the dialogue to the hearing impaired members of the audience. When you think about it, she doesn’t have just one part to learn, she has to know the whole thing and seeing her sign Over The Rainbow was an education in itself. On behalf of all those who relied on your incredible talent to enjoy the show thank you very much, you are a star.
For full details of all those involved either follow the link below or, better still, go to the show and buy a programme!
If you need any further proof as to just how good this Wizard of Oz is then don’t just take my word for it. The running time is 2 hours 50 minutes including a 20 minute break which is a heck of a long time when you are a kid, and there were a lot of children in the audience, but, apart from a few minutes at the beginning when a very small child was talking quite loudly, every single one of them was enthralled for the whole time. That is one example of how no words at all can say far more than my 1200 can.
One last footnote – literally. I mentioned the effect of Dorothy’s ruby slippers in the show, well a few years ago I was lucky enough to visit Washington DC where I went to the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian, and saw the original ones as used in the film version in 1939. They have lost a lot of their sparkle, but then haven’t we all!
The Wizard of Oz runs at Leeds Playhouse until 25th January 2020
Audio Described Performances by Anne Muers and Maggie Mash are on Saturday 14th December at 1.30pm and Thursday 16th January at 7.00pm
BSL-Interpreted Performances are on Saturday 21st December at 1.30pm and Thursday 9th January again at 1.30pm, both signed by Karen Seabrook
Captioned Performances can be seen on Friday 20th December at 7.00pm and Wednesday 8th January at 7.00pm captioned by Michèle Jackson
There is a Dementia Friendly Performance on Tuesday 14th January at 12.30pm
A Relaxed Performance is taking place on Thursday 5th December at 12.30pm
However you experience it – enjoy!
All photographs by The Other Richard except where stated