The Wizard of Oz
28th Nov – 25th Jan
Tonight saw the opening performance of Leeds Playhouse’s 2019 Christmas show, The Wizard of Oz, in the playhouse’s recently opened Quarry theatre. This was a hugely important night for the theatre and it was abundantly clear from the outset that every effort had been made to ensure that this show was nothing less than outstanding. It’s certainly no exaggeration to say that everyone who stepped out into the drizzly November night after the show were still wrapped up in the show’s spell, their faces plastered with beaming smiles and their ears still ringing with the joyful sounds of Oz.
This is a big budget family blockbuster that absolutely delivers on all counts, giddy with the spectacle of hot air balloons, colourful rotating sets, bungee jumping monkeys, enchanting puppet work, and panto-style boo hiss villains. The colourful and exuberant cast make use of every inch of the new performance space, popping out of trapdoors, rising up into the lighting rig and spilling out into the auditorium, much to the delight of the younger theatre goers in the audience.
Everyone involved overflowed with an infectious eagerness to please, from the cast to the attendants in the auditorium, actively engaging with members of the audience before, during and after the production. This wasn’t a show, it was an event: everyone involved with the production and the theatre had eagerly seized this opportunity to shout loudly about their wonderful new space: Look how amazing it is, look what it can do! It’s an assertion that is pretty hard to deny.
But this isn’t mere spectacle. There’s real substance here and much to commend. This could have easily been an overenthusiastic splurge of colour and choreography, but James Brining’s hugely assured direction easily swerves this potential pitfall. Given how much is going on onstage, it never feels overwhelming – every element sits perfectly in its rightful place.
The younger cast all hold their own and the early Munchkin sequence is an early high point in a show of many such high points. They enthusiastically pull the audience headlong into their colourful world. Their choreography is near flawless and their characters so joyful and memorable that they are single-handedly responsible for the grins that spread across the audience.
Standout performances include Polly Lister as the Wicked Witch, who thoroughly relishes the OTT villainy of the character, a character that inspires raucous boos and even more raucous laughter. Eleanor Sutton is a delight as Scarecrow, imbuing the character with boundless enthusiasm and Marcus Ayton as Lion delivers some crowd pleasing vocal performances.
It’s surely not possible to review The Wizard of Oz without mentioning the central performance as Dorothy. Dorothy can either make or break a production, and here it’s a resounding MAKE. Agatha Meehan and Lucy Sherman will be sharing duties throughout the run of this production and tonight was the turn of Lucy Sherman who provided a fantastic focal point for the show. Her performance was confident and effortless and her rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow provoked an early outburst of delighted applause.
Director James Brining has stated the parallels that he sees between environmental activist Greta Thunberg and the character of Dorothy, both taking on responsibility for a world that has been ruined and neglected by adults, and it’s clear that she is a huge source of inspiration for this take on the character, deliberately choosing a younger actress for the part.
There’s also an appropriately cheeky nod to the gay following of the 1939 Hollywood film. Sam Harrison’s Tin Man here is an overtly gay character, who has been punished for being in love with a man by having his heart forcibly removed. It helps to add depth to the story – this production’s Dorothy/ Greta is on a mission to help oppressed minority communities and individuals, not just to find her way back to Kansas.
Simon Higlett’s set design is nothing less than jaw dropping, creating a sense of constant movement – the sets rotate and evolve, vehicles move across the stage, forests bloom, tornadoes rip the scenery apart (what a fantastic sequence!) and the yellow brick road moves characters about the stage, bringing more and more outlandish characters into the path of the central protagonists. All of this is overlaid with video footage that lends further colour, movement and life to the stage. This reaches its crescendo when the cast arrive at the flashing green lights of Emerald City and the final showdown with the Wicked Witch – the sets are as brightly coloured and alive as any film set.
In fact, it’s hard to not list all the names of those involved with the show as this is a hugely accomplished show, packed full of highlights. There’s aerial director, Tim Claydon, whose work provides so much of the show’s spectacle and energy. There’s Ailsa Dalling as Toto puppeteer, brings the delightful character to scene stealing life. Put simply, there’s far too much to mention.
The Wizard of Oz is a resounding success for both company and theatre, a perfect show to launch their Christmas season and to show off their new theatre to a wider audience.