Review: The Wizard of Oz at Storyhouse, Chester

By Nigel Smith

STORYHOUSE Artistic Director Alex Clifton loves to tell a story. After all, look what he called his house. Christmas is a time for storytelling and the tradition ranges from the glitz, sparkle and ribaldry of the traditional pantomime to the darker shades of ghost stories.

Then, of course, are the perennial favourites that have little to do with Christmas but which always seem to feel seasonal. I haven’t looked this year, but it’s a safe bet that L. Frank Baum’s modern fairytale will be appearing soon on our TV screens. The story’s best known incarnation is the 1939 MGM screen version that made Dorothy, her dog Toto and her Ruby Slippers an absolute classic as a movie musical.

Clifton has chosen to use John Kane’s stage version originally written for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1987 production. This adaptation goes to extreme lengths to reproduce the MGM picture as faithfully as possible, including all of Harold Arlen and Edgar Harburg’s original music and lyrics, along with pretty much every word of the screen dialogue.

The overture, complete with the MGM signature, transports us straight into the cinema as Music Director George Francis strikes up his very impressive 10 piece orchestra. Alex Beetschen’s new orchestral reductions of the score really do have a familiar feel. Here there’s a moment to reflect that the very theatre we’re sitting in evolved from the shell of Chester’s former Odeon, built in 1936, 3 years before the film’s release.

Designer James Perkins teases us at first by only opening up small parts of the proscenium to reveal the Gale family’s farmhouse and its surroundings piece by piece. In the transformation scene in which a tornado picks up the house and drops it in the land of Oz, the stage opens up to reveal Perkins’ full set – the point at which the film version changes from monochrome to Technicolor. It’s also here that Dorothy’s soft toy dog Toto makes a magical transformation, much to the audience’s audible delight.

Consuela Rolle is Dorothy, and she succeeds in capturing all the petulance and wide-eyed innocence of the role that Judy Garland made famous. Both she and her travelling companions have quite clearly studied the vocal characteristics of the film actors. Natalie Woods makes a wonderfully floppy Scarecrow, and Ben Oliver is full of heart as the Tin Man, while if you close your eyes you could swear that Richard Colvin’s Cowardly Lion was actually Bert Lahr. But please don’t close those eyes, because the physical performances are beautifully crafted. Every detail of the Scarecrow’s invertebrate state, Tin Man’s propensity to seize up and the Lion’s habit of scaring himself with his own tail are perfectly captured.

Natasha Bain, whose Aunt Em transforms into Glinda the Good, and Zara Ramm who is the Wicked Witch of the West and Miss Gulch both have a ball with the parts, Ramm in particular relishing the evil cackling in some splendid entrances that a BBFC film advisory might call scenes of mild threat.

A lovely spot of casting is Fergus Rattigan, who is both the flummery-peddling Professor Marvel and the mysterious man behind the curtain. You can’t help but feel sad for him as his pretence is uncovered.

Add to this a great band of Munchkins sourced from Chester’s House of Dance, along with a community ensemble and the stage is filled with life.

Don’t expect glitter, flashy lights, or the glamour of a panto. This play takes its time to tell the story in a very traditional way, and it has style to replace the sparkle. It’s an old-fashioned tale about friendship and appreciating the people who love us, and it doesn’t need pyrotechnics to make its mark.

Part of the show’s appeal is that everything in the music and text has a familiarity about it. It’s strange that John Kane chose to reinstate the Jitterbug sequence which was cut from the film. It adds little to the exposition and its unfamiliarity arrests the flow of the story, whilst adding a few extra minutes to an already lengthy running time. Nonetheless, there’s no avoiding the fact that this production manages to hold a young audience’s attention well throughout.

Mention must go to young Albert, who was Toto in this performance. He shares the role with his kennel mates Buddy, Bailey and Bangles and, like all but Buddy who’s a seasoned pro, is making an endearing stage debut in this show.

Alex Clifton obviously ignored the memo about working with children and animals, and the risk pays off in lovely piece of cosy Christmas charm.