Review: The Wizard of Oz (Royal Festival Hall)

I was originally due to be seeing The Wizard of Oz  next week, and even managed to book tickets. Unfortunately, I then couldn’t make the performance, so it was looking like I wouldn’t get to see the Festival Hall’s summer musical. Fortunately, we managed to pick up a couple of last minute tickets for last night’s show.

On balance, I’m pleased that I saw the show. It isn’t perfect, but any faults really lie with the material itself, and should not reflect on an excellent production from Jude Kelly. My experience yesterday was actually pretty similar to my recent trip to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Adelphi – a lot of fun but slightly underwhelming. Given that, I’m going to write this post in a similar style, and share my highlights and lowlights…

It’s worth noting that the show was still in previews last night, and has its formal opening night during this week – it will be interesting to see whether the critics agree with me!

 

The highlights

1. Sian Brooke 
Stepping into a role played originally by Judy Garland cannot be easy, but Brooke does an exceptional job. Musical theatre fans may well not know her, given that she hasn’t been in a musical since graduating from RADA as just over 5 years ago. Judging by a recent interview with The Times, she has a seriously impressive acting pedigree, so it should come as no surprise that he is brilliant in this production. She has a great voice, and makes a very convincing 13-year old. She carries the show brilliantly.

2. Adam Cooper
Since leaving the Royal Ballet, Adam Cooper has turned his hand to musical theatre, as both choreographer and leading man. In fact, this isn’t his first show at the Festival Hall either, after doing On Your Toes before the recent refurbishment.  I also saw him in Guys and Dolls at the Piccadilly Theatre, and he’s an amazing presence on stage. His portrayal of the Tin Man in this production was superb, and I only wish that he had spent more time dancing.

3. The choreography (and chorus)
Nick Winston’s highly inventive choreography adds real energy to the show. Judging by his official website, it seems like this is his first major show in London, despite plenty of experience in regional and touring theatre. Given the effectiveness of the chorus in this production, I think there’s a good chance he’ll be choreographing something big in the West End soon.

4. The orchestra
The Festival Hall is a concert hall, not a theatre, so it’s always challenging to get sound right. In this production, the orchestra is located in an open pit in front of the stage, making life even more challenging for the Sound Designers! MD Jonathan Gill (who worked with Nick Winston on a production of Follies in Northampton in 2006), keeps a tight leash on orchestra and cast alike, and the result is impressively slick.

5. Toto
In this production Toto is played by an adorable West Highland white terrier. Judging by the audience’s reaction during the applause, he may well have been their favourite performer. His apparent attempts to steal the limelight from Sian Brooke during ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ with persistent barking barely register. A wonderful performance…

 

The lowlights
There aren’t that many things that I can pick out, and they are all linked to my assertion that the material itself isn’t that strong. It’s a long time since I saw the orignal film, but I’m assured that this production is extremely close to that film. Unfortunately, I’ve grown up since then, and appear to be more demanding in what I’m impressed by! There are 3 things in particular that frustrated me about this show.

1. The length
The show lasts for nearly 3 hours with an interval, and given that it’s a show aimed at children, it’s just too long. The second half is particularly painful, and really drags. I’m not sure Jude Kelly could have done anything to keep the pace up given how average the material is, but I couldn’t help looking at my watch in the last 45 mins. Overall, it’s at least 30 mins too long, and the show would not have suffered from some significant cuts.

2. The lack of story
I guess I had forgotten how silly it is given that I was a child when I last saw the film. It might be perfect for children, but I suspect many adults would (like me) have been pretty bored at times. It’s a shame though, as film companies like Pixar have shown that it is possible for something to appeal to adults and children and adults alike.

3. The lack of songs
The Wizard of Oz has some memorable numbers in it, but I had also forgotten how few songs there actually are. ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’, ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ and ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’ are all brilliant, but I really wish there were more songs! It’s the dialogue that lets the show down…

 

In conclusion
When I first heard that the show was being staged, I thought it would have a good shot of transferring to a West End theatre, but now I’m not so sure. The show is unquestionably fun, and is a perfect outing for families during the summer. Unfortunately, it’s not quite so fun for adults, particularly the second half which really drags.

This shouldn’t take anything away from the quality of the production – the cast are, without exception, excellent, and they deserve real praise for their performances.

But, on balance, would I recommend it? Probably not unless you’re taking children with you. Let’s see what the critics think though – maybe I’ve been a little too harsh?

**************************************************************************************
Newsflash: The critics’ view
I might do a full round-up later in the week, but in case you’re wondering, the critics actually seemed to agree with me on this one. The show got a couple of 3 star reviews and a couple of 2 star ones. There seems to be general agreement that the blame lies with the show and venue rather than the case. You can see the full reviews at:

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