A Yellow Brick Road worth following [by James Wenley]
We’re off to the see the Wizard. I’ll get you my pretties. Dorothy. Scarecrow. Lion. Tin Man. Toto.
The songs, images, lines and characters from The Wizard of Oz are burned in technicolour into the memories of generations of people for over 70 years. While deviating wildly from L. Frank Baum’s 1900 original book (turning the whole thing into a dream for one), the 1939 movie musical is arguably perfect cinema, and it is this interpretation that has taken hold of popular culture.
Still timeless, the memorable characters light up the screen in technicolour, and the story rewards both the young and the young at heart. Who hasn’t, like Dorothy, longed for a place where the “dreams that you dare to dream really do come true”.
And the Western world has continued to be fascinated by it. Andrew Lloyd Webber has put his own spin on the musical, Wicked revealed that the Wicked Witch of the West was actually rather nice, and there’s a new ‘prequel’ movie coming out starring James Franco as the Wizard.
But nothing has surpassed the film. Mess with this property at your peril.
Peach Theatre Company have produced a Wizard of the Oz on the stage that stays ever faithful to the MGM movie, with a few theatrical twirls of its own. The biggest and grandest production yet from director Jesse Peach, he’s worked from a script based on the classic motion picture and originally adapted for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987*. This version follows the film closely – it retains the lines from the screenplay, and even the delivery in this production is sometimes eerily similar. There are a few extra jokes and dialogue, a restored deleted number, and some extra verses before the familiar songs of ‘Over the Rainbow’ and the ‘If I only had a…’ series.
It’s hard to imagine more perfect casting than the main ensemble of local actors that Peach has bought together.
The multi-talented Olivia Tennet is a delightful Dorothy, immediately stepping out of the shadow of Judy Garland with a bright smile and a jazz step, and delivers a more modern girl take on the character. Her ‘Over the Rainbow’, the first song of the evening and definitely the most well known, is wistful and beautiful. But even this standard was overshadowed by the cute antics of Tennet’s co-star Poco Loco as Toto the Dog who never missed his mark (or bark) and was a scene stealer throughout.
Blown to Oz, Dorothy is joined on her quest to see the Wizard of Oz by the Scarecrow (Kristian Lavercombe), Tin Man (Nic Kyle) and the cowardly Lion (George Henare). Lavercombe, last seen at The Civic as Riff Raff in the Rocky Horror Show looks very different but just as wonderfully crazy, springing about the stage as the smarter-than-he-thinks Scarecrow. Kyle makes a sentimental Tin Man, and George Henare’s energy is boundless, he’s all you could wish for in Lion and more. The trio appear at the beginning and end of the movie as farmhands ala the movie, cleverly foreshadowing their roles once in Oz.
In Kansas, Lisa Chappell and Robert Rakete are suitably homely as Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, but once in Oz Rakete becomes a bumbling Emerald city guard (though his relative theatre inexperience shows), and Lisa Chapell transforms into a kooky, spaced out Glinda, the good witch, with a voice that sounds like Katy Perry on acid. It works, gloriously. Raymond Hawthorne, professor Marvel in Kansas, makes a wise, venerable Wizard of Oz with a twinkle in his eye.
But the most memorable performance is without a doubt the cackling Helen Medlyn as the Wicked Witch of the West, covered in green makeup and a rock star hair-do, she makes the role entirely her own. Appearing everywhere from the back of the stage to a Civic Box she was a villain we could love to hate. And the Opera Diva didn’t even sing a note.
While all these characters adhere to their classic images, thanks to the excellent costume work by Lynn Cottingham and Make up/prosthetics by Abi Taylor, an original Peach invention is the inclusion of Turanga Merito and Tina Cross as Chorus ‘Queens’, appearing throughout the night as crows, trees and other observers. They add a touch of camp and jazzy class to the evening, Merito’s characterisation seems to be particular drag inspired, and they kept the show fresh, surprising, and vocally popping.
Last, but not certainly not least were the 88 strong chorus of children, ranging in age from 6 – 17, that the production’s publicity had kept rather quiet. Although a little unpolished at times, they made up for it with their enthusiasm, spunk and wonderfully silly costumes.
John Verytt’s set has a slight kiwi nod – the yellow brick road spirals that dot the grassy knolls on the stage are reminiscent of the koru. To this stage various set pieces are wheeled on and off by the cast, which on opening night lacked precision. Though simple, they mostly do the trick, with the lights, costume, a scrim and other drops helping to suggest the locales of Oz and Kansas, though I dare say the Emerald City was missing some shine.
The 17 member Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Young are in fine form, and transport us away to a magical land after the first few bars.
All of the well known musical favourites are done justice by the cast. The Jitterbug number, in which the Wicked Witch sends the jitterbugs to tire out our heroes by making them dance, was a scene cut from the film – wisely too, as I suspect the then contemporary style would have dated the film. On stage though, it’s proudly restored, and delivers one of the highlights of the night as the cast boogie away to Jack Gray’s high-energy choreography, jitterbugs popping out behind trees. Olivia Tennet also gets the opportunity to wow us with her tap skills, shining even brighter.
Let’s face it; the Wizard of Oz is review free. Most people will know going in whether it’s their thing or not. The only question is whether the production delivers an experience worthy for the fans of the show, and as a fan I can confidently say Peach Theatre Company delivers a whiz of a Wiz.
I suspect though that anyone who doesn’t like The Wizard of Oz is lacking a heart. Or a brain. Or courage for that matter. In which case they surely need to go off to see the Wizard!
* Of Interest: L Frank Baum wrote his own stage musical of the Wizard of Oz in 1902 that played on Broadway. Apparently it too was different from the novel, and there was no Wicked Witch or Toto! There’s also a 1942 stage musical version based on both the film and novel with an additional song ‘Evening Star’, no flying monkeys, and Oz offers to take Dorothy home on his new Rocket Ship(!!!)
The Wizard of Oz, presented by Peach Theatre Company, performs at The Civic Theatre until Sunday 18th September. More information at The Edge.