Back in 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer helped the world of cinema take a giant leap forward when a young girl from Kansas opened the door of her farmhouse to reveal the wonderfully colourful Munchkinland, in a scene that still amazes each new generation who see it.
Now in 2017, with the clever use of a black and white video of the tornado that takes the house from one land to another, the creative team behind Trinity Theatre’s Royal Shakespeare Company version of The Wizard of Oz have managed to recreate that fantastically magical moment live on stage.
As Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Ina Marie Smith), gracefully floats down on her bubble to reveal to Dorothy that her house has landed on the Wicked Witch of the East and killed her, and the Munchkins appear from all over the auditorium, the stage that, up to now, has been fairly dark, suddenly comes alive with colour and movement.
Scarlett Leigh Fawcett, who has already set the bar very high with a tremendously emotional rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, leads the cast as Dorothy. With just the right mixture of vulnerabilty and feistiness, she fills Judy Garland’s ruby slippers very well indeed.
Performimg the RSC production, as opposed to the many pantomime versions that are often on stage over the festive season, means that the show stays very faithful to the film and, as well as recreating all the iconic scenes from the movie, we get to hear all the wonderful musical numbers as well.
Soon after the Munchkins send Dorothy on her way to Oz, after choruses of Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead and Follow the Yellow Brick Road, she meets up with Scarecrow, played by Laurie Denman. His rubber-legged performance is halfway between slapstick and commedia dell’arte, and he soon finds a very warm place in the hearts of the, very appreciative, audience.
Gardiner Fraser-Hill, as the Tinman, and Spencer Lee Osbourne, as the Cowardly Lion, follow on from Scarecrow’s If I Only Had a Brain routine with, If I Only Had a Heart and If I Only Had the Nerve, to complete the foursome who then head off in search of the elusive Wizard of Oz.
These four, together with the irrepressible Cooper, in the role of Toto, are the central spoke around which this superbly produced show revolves. Each is as strong as the others, giving everything they have to their performances while still having the time of their lives in their respective roles.
After watching Jenny Wills fly off on her bicycle as nasty Miss Gulch, she soon returns as the even nastier, green skinned, Wicked Witch of the West, once again flying high above the stage – only this time on her broomstick. With more than a passing nod to Margaret Hamilton’s amazing performance in the film, Wills has mastered both the voice and mannerisms to recreate the character that we all recognise.
In act two we arrive at the Emerald City where the Guard played by Ian Chaplain (looking remarkably similar to Uncle Henry) recreates the iconic “Bell Out of Order” scene before allowing Dorothy and her friends access to the chamber of the Wizard (John Conway).
Although the voice of the Wizard could do with being somewhat louder to really sound menacing, the video effects that go with the scenes inside the chamber work very well indeed and the four friends soon set off to complete the task of obtaining the broomstick of the Wicked Witch.
After falling into the witches trap, and exhausting herself dancing with the Jitterbugs, soon the action switches to the castle of the Wicked Witch where Dorothy is now a captive after being caught by Nikko (Luke Simnett), the leader of the Flying Monkeys.
All the most memorable moments from the film are here. The Winkies, played by members of the Ensemble, chant their famous tune as they march into the castle, followed by Scarecrow, Lion and Tinman who are planning a rescue, Dorothy is locked in the tower (with a conveniently placed bucket of water close by) and, at the appropriate time, the Wicked Witch has a spectacularly executed meltdown!
There is one more person who deserves an extra special mention. As part of the ensemble he plays a variety of roles but whether he is creating fabulous makeovers in the “wash and brush up” scene, busting out some crazy moves when he should be standing to attention as one of the Winkies or getting over-emotional in the final goodbye scene, Harvey Ebbage manages to pull focus in every scene in which he appears. Director John Martin has obviously recognised that Harvey has bucketloads of natural talent and gives him the freedom to use his skills to add value to what is already a really tremendous production.
The Wizard of Oz is, for many people, as much a part of Christmas as mulled wine, mistletoe and mince pies and this superb show makes for a thoroughly entertaining alternative to the plethora of pantomimes on offer around the region this festive season.
**** Four Stars