A TIMELESS CLASSIC WELL WROUGHT
The Wizard of Oz
By L. Frank Baum
With music & lyrics by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg
Background music by Herbert Stothart
Dance and vocal arrangements by Peter Howard
Orchestration by Larry Wilcox
Adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company
Based on the classic motion picture owned by Turner Entertainment Co. and distributed in all media by Warner Bros.
Presented by arrangement with Tams-Whitmark Music Library, Inc.
Produced and directed by Jesse Peach
Musical director Anthony Young
Choreographer Jack Gray
Peach Theatre Company
at The Civic – THE EDGE®, Auckland
From 10 Sep 2011 to 18 Sep 2011
Reviewed by Nik Smythe, 11 Sep 2011
As the audience convenes in the auditorium, the projection of a stern elderly face peers out from a large full moon hanging in the centre of the open, empty stage. Anyone familiar with this iconic musical via the 1939 film (surely the entire adult audience and more than half the rest) will be eagerly anticipating the elaborate spectacle (and exhilarating musical score) soon to play out before our expectant eyes and ears.
It has a lot to live up to – and now, having seen it, I am confident they will not be disappointed. Auckland's youngest large-scale theatre veteran Jesse Peach has produced and directed an accomplished company in a delightful rendition of the best-known musical of all time. With a star-studded ‘who's who' line-up of central characters, young and less-young, aided by a spirited chorus numbering 88 flamboyant youths aged five to seventeen, the 111 year old tale of L. Frank Baum is faithfully crafted for our appreciation.
Olivia Tennet is the very picture and temperament of the central character, wholesome Kansas farm-girl Dorothy. It's clear she relishes the honour of playing the coveted lead as typified in the film's illustrious turn by Judy Garland, bringing her all to the demanding task. Her sidekick Toto, played by lovably clever Yorkshire terrier Poco Loco, is my first experience of a live animal being cast in live theatre, and most rewarding at that.
The remaining cast also draw heavily from the movie, particularly Dorothy's adopted companions: the clumsy, brainless (though frequently astute) Scarecrow, brought to life by the considerable triple-A talents of Kristian Lavercombe; the heartless-yet-compassionate Tin Man (Nic Kyle) – the closest thing you'll get to a straight man, in Oz at least; and the terrified-yet-determined Cowardly Lion a-la local legend George Henare, brilliantly portrayed with as much vitality and drive as any respectable thespian half his age.
Besides Dorothy and Toto, all the main players have dual roles, their ‘real-life' Kansas characters and their fantastical Oz counterparts. For the most part the latter are mirrors of the former with two exceptions: Lisa Chappell's serious law-abiding matron Aunt Em, contrasted by her sweet, nurturing and slightly ditzy Glinda, the Good Witch of the North; and mainstream pop-culture luminary Robert Rakete, whose officious fatherly pragmatist Uncle Henry is the virtual opposite of his abject bumbling Emerald City Guard.
Comparatively, the character of Helen Medlyn's nasty, vindictive spinster Miss Gultch differs only in appearance from her outstanding and definitive performance as the Wicked Witch of the West; both are a joy to despise. Meanwhile the casting of local theatre patriarch Raymond Hawthorne as humbug Kansas clairvoyant Professor Marvel and the over-inflated majesty of the title Wizard is nothing short of inspired.
Threaded throughout the eventful journey, often leading the voluminous choir, are the phenomenal chops of Chorus Queens Turanga Merito and the incomparable Tina Cross.
For many the highlight of any musical is, fittingly, the music. Musical director Anthony Young ably conducts a praiseworthy 20-odd-piece orchestra through the venerated, immortal compositions of Harold Arlen and lyricist E. Y. Harburg. The make-or-break execution of the anthemic first song ‘Over the Rainbow' comes across most satisfactorily, thanks in no small part to Tennet's powerfully pure singing ability.
The recurring thematic ‘If I Only Had A…' numbers, the Munchkinland medley and the Lion's wistfully operatic ‘If I Were King' achieve similar requisite success. It occurs to me it's strange for a musical that the villain, i.e. the Witch, doesn't have her own song. Presumably it would be too out of character for her express her purpose through melody and lyric as the protagonists do.
Choreographer Jack Gray is fortunate to have in the cast such a well-disposed troupe of able-bodied movers, tirelessly executing his elaborate, often vigorous arrangements. The endearing charm of the children in the Lullaby League, Lollipop Guild et al in the Munchkinland sequence carries a good deal of quaint amusement, but the real show-stopper dance-wise is the fast and furious Jitterbug routine, where Tennet in particular displays mind-blowing co-ordination and skill in tap and vaudeville-style jazz.
There's something of a pre-set design expectation for the play's various archetypes, from which it seems both risky and unnecessary to deviate. The standard form has been adapted in various ways in the past but only with a fraction of the mammoth success enjoyed by the classic MGM film adaptation.
To the trained eye, John Verryt's set has clearly been designed and produced on a budget. The inbuilt splendour of Auckland city's most ornate venue provides an appropriately majestic frame, inside which a less seasoned production designer might develop something tacky and mismatched in an attempt to create a sense of grandiose beyond their resources.
Instead, Verryt's various scenes, and the accompanying effects of Jennifer Lal's exemplary lighting design, are revealed in consummate tasteful simplicity. The only one that leaves me wanting is the Emerald City, which I feel could have been perhaps a tad more ostentatious, shiny and emerald-like. Even then, the way cast fills the space with their boundless energy and bountiful talent render such criticism finicky nit-picking.
Lynn Cottingham's costume design succeeds in a similar uncomplicatedly stylish fashion, both for the leads and the extensive children's chorus playing Munchkins, poppies and Ozian citizens among other curious peoples and creatures.
Augmenting her good work is Abi Taylor's outstanding make-up and prosthetic design, which particularly shines where it really counts, notably in the case of the green and grimacing Wicked Witch, and the handsome silvery trappings of the Tin Man. The Scarecrow's leaking straw, which he continually has to stuff back inside him, is another of many pleasing touches.
Opening night saw a few technical problems – mistimed smoke bombs, video glitches and so on. The most glaring blunder was the Wizard missing the balloon he is supposed to be aboard as it floats away leaving Dorothy stranded, prompting the amusing ad-lib ‘That idiot guard has ruined my exit!' …It's reasonable to assume that won't happen again.
In essence, a timeless classic well wrought. My 9 year old boy's favourite character was the Scarecrow. Mine was the Wicked Witch. The entire cast deserves high commendation, and all-round best loved is Toto.
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