It’s nice to have a house drop on Brisbane first for once, with the glossy West End production of The Wizard of Oz making its Oz premiere at QPAC’s Lyric Theatre.
Though based on the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz has been retrofitted with gritty-prequel sensation Wicked in mind. Jemma Rix and Lucy Durack even reprise their roles as Wicked Witch Elphaba and Good Witch Glinda respectively. It mostly works, though there’s constant push-pull between nostalgic sweetness and Broadway camp. Samantha Dodemaide perfectly captures Dorothy’s golden-age naivety and trusting mettle, while Rix and Durack bookend the plot’s melodramatic elements with panto vim.
Industry mainstay and “National Living Treasure” Anthony Warlow is in his element in the duel role of Professor Marvel and the Wizard himself. But it’s Dorothy’s unlikely friends (Alex Rathgeber as Tin Man, Eli Cooper as Scarecrow, and John Xintavelonis as Lion) who are the real heart – and maybe brains and courage – of the operation, making sure there are nods aplenty to Oz’s lasting role as a queer touchstone.
Then there are the songs. It’d be unkind to expect new material to stand up to such culturally ingrained ditties as Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and that struggle shows in powerhouse duo Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s additional music and lyrics. There’s a Broadway blandness to these tunes that seems to accept their fate as plot-pushers, letting Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s enduringly witty and heartfelt score work its nostalgic magic. But it’s not all forgettable – encyclopaedia-cum-slideshow salesman Professor Marvel unravelling the Wonders of the World from his caravan for Dorothy is enchanting, and grounds our protagonist’s fantastic journey in her very real small-town anxiety.
Jon Driscoll and Daniel Brodie’s enthralling video and projection work is the production’s highlight, approximating the wow-factor of the original film’s transformation from black-and-white to Technicolor. These segue sequences whip us up into the twister, and take us soaring over Oz in the claws of the Wicked Witch’s monkey henchmen. This bedazzlement means Robert Jones’ set can remain relatively simple – somewhat refreshing after the Transformer-scale set-pieces of shows like Matilda, in which the performances can be overshadowed by their backdrops. (Still, there’s plenty of glitter in Jones’ costumes – and the NYC-inspired Emerald City set – to occupy any attention spans missing a stage cluttered with gadgets.)
As with so many current reboots, this version insists The Wizard of Oz must be more epic than its source material: not only does the Wicked Witch want those powerful ruby pumps, she also wants to overthrow Oz with them – the fate of the whole world teeters on Dorothy’s heels. It’s fun, but not necessary – there’s enough pathos in Dorothy’s loneliness and isolation, enough joy in her self-discovery and adventures, and enough feeling in her homecoming for The Wizard of Oz to stand on its own two slippers as a fantastical coming-of-age story. There’s no plot like one that stays grounded in the humanity of its characters and, no matter how Technicolor the grass on the other side, there’s no place like home.