Were it not for Robert Jones’ eye-popping sets and costumes, the star of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new production of “The Wizard Of Oz” would be the West Highland Terrier playing Toto. He rivets attention because at any given moment audiences cannot tell what he will do. That’s a kind of rebuke to almost every other element of the big-budget show. Director Jeremy Sams does his damnedest but his hands are tied because it’s well-nigh impossible to add tension to an evening in which almost everything is predictable and, well, doggedly faithful.
Having found an appealing Dorothy in 18-year-old Danielle Hope – cast via BBC’s primetime-TV star search “Over the Rainbow” – the producers evidently set about fulfilling expectations. Unlike Kneehigh’s recent “Brief Encounter” which, handling a similarly iconic cinematic source, played fast and loose with the letter to amplify the spirit, this show appears almost terrified of deviating from the original.
Aside from the insertion of knowing gags – David Ganly’s Lion announces that he’s “proud to be a friend of Dorothy’s” – the major change is the addition of a handful of new numbers to make screen material function as a stage musical. The chief gain is “Red Shoes Blues,” a snarl-up for Hannah Waddingham’s rip-snorting Wicked Witch of the West. This is Lloyd Webber in vicious waltz mode with Waddingham singing the hell out of tart rhymes from Tim Rice: “She’s pretty and clueless and I want her shoeless.”
Shamelessly milking the role of Professor Marvel – he openly eggs the audience on for his entrance round – Michael Crawford is given the anodyne “Wonders of the World” to woo runaway Dorothy.
His new song as the Wizard, the first act closer “Bring Me the Broomstick” is more problematic. Hidden from the characters and the audience, he delivers the song from offstage, it’s literally disembodied. Even with David Cullen’s malevolent orchestration for the 17-piece band nodding towards Prokofiev, the number only elicits generalized fear. When the curtain falls, it feels odd because there has been no build and, therefore, no climax.
That’s similarly true of Arlene Phillips’s vapid choreography, a seriously missed opportunity. “Mary Poppins,” another show tied to a movie, lifts the roof off with its extended dance, but nothing here makes you long for a reprise. Precisely one hour into the show, Phillips finally gives the full company something to do in “The Merry Old Land of Oz” but it’s just perky illustration: there’s effort but no excitement. Here, and in the second act opener which sees Phillips resorting to assembling meaningless “modern dance” cliches, applause is triggered more by Hugh Vanstone’s accomplished lighting than the euphoric release of dance energy.
It’s not Hope’s fault that the 11 o’clock number “Over the Rainbow” arrives about 15 minutes into the show, robbing her performance of pathos. But when neither that number nor any that follow lift the roof off, you start to wonder why this needs to be a full-blown musical.
As a result, focus needs to be held by the principal characters, but their likeable work – especially Edward Baker-Duly’s witty Tin Man – is dwarfed by the scale of the sets. Through no fault of the actors, Hope’s tender relationship with Paul Keating’s Scarecrow doesn’t fully register, not least because on stage they don’t have the benefit of close-ups. The production’s insistence to keep moving comes at the expense of allowing character and/or situation to achieve emotional engagement.
On the plus side, Sams’ marshalling of huge resources, including Jon Driscoll’s effective “twister” projection sequence, is impressive and audiences can certainly see where the money has been spent. But who wants to applaud effort and the extent of a budget?
The combination of the title, the continually growing audience for “Wicked” and Hope’s unforced charm should ensure a healthy initial run. But for a grand-scale show as costly as this, extended life beyond Hope’s contract is highly questionable.