'The Wizard of Oz' review – Georgina Onuorah is a wonderfully spirited Dorothy
Read our three-star review of The Wizard of Oz, starring Georgina Onuorah and Jason Manford, now in performances at the London Palladium to 3 September.
There’s no place like the West End! Yes, Dorothy and pals have followed the Yellow Brick Road from Leicester Curve, where Nikolai Foster’s musical revival began last year, all the way to the London Palladium. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams’s 2011 version of The Wizard of Oz features Harold Arlen and EY Harburg’s beloved music from the 1939 movie, plus additions from Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
The familiar story is all there. During a cyclone, unhappy Kansas teenager Dorothy is transported to a magical land. Her house flattens the Wicked Witch of the East, liberating the Munchkins. Good Witch Glinda tells Dorothy to visit Oz in the Emerald City, and she picks up three friends along the way: the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion. But can they escape the wrath of the Wicked Witch of the West, is the Wizard really what he seems – and can Dorothy get home?
Foster’s production is certainly a spectacle. As Dorothy goes from Kansas to Oz, we jump forward in time from the Depression to 1950s-60s Americana: eye-popping technicolour costumes from Rachael Canning and sets from Colin Richmond. I particularly loved Christina Bianco’s vibrant, blonde ponytail-sporting, high note-blasting Glinda zipping onto the stage on a hot-pink scooter: Oz meets the Barbie movie.
Douglas O’Connell’s digital projections (part cinematic, part video game) dominate, whirling up storms and giving us a bird’s-eye view of Kansas farmlands. Later, the Wizard’s chamber is all circuit boards and pixels, the Emerald City is packed with skyscrapers, and the Wicked Witch is a tycoon in an industrial wasteland.
Sometimes, though, it gets confusing. I really wanted to see our gang skip down the Yellow Brick Road, rather than jumping around Route 66-esque fragments of it. And the sequence where the Wicked Witch attacks them with sleep-inducing poppies is muddled by a Kubrick-referencing hotel setting.
I wondered if younger viewers could actually follow the narrative. And it seems a shame to rely so heavily on screens, instead of selling those audiences on the more tangible magic of theatre. (For example, no one physically flies; it’s all in the projections.)
But the big-name cast is strong enough to compete with that digital blitz. Georgina Onuorah is a passionate Dorothy who feels that no one understands her, and so is fiercely protective of her similarly misfit new friends. She brings real spirit and soul to “Over the Rainbow”, which is here less a wistful musing, more a powerful anthemic mission statement.
Dianne Pilkington is a deliciously vampy femme fatale of a Wicked Witch, playing brilliantly off the enthralled younger viewers. Though generally the added Lloyd Webber/Rice songs don’t make much impact, Pilkington has a blast with her big villain number “Red Shoes Blues.” Gary Wilmot is excellent as the fraudulent Oz; likewise, his panto experience shows in his easy way with an audience.
Louis Gaunt is an adorable scatty Scarecrow who stumbles and falls into the splits. Ashley Banjo, best known as the leader of Britain’s Got Talent-winning troupe Diversity, uses his street dance skills (fantastic waves and isolations) to convey the Tin Man’s rusted, robotic limbs, while Jason Manford brings impeccable comic timing and a New York drawl to his boxer-styled Lion with a blonde perm.
The best scenes feature this trio bouncing off one another, and off Dorothy – putting the focus on the people, not the technical fireworks. But the real scene-stealer is the startlingly lifelike puppet Toto, operated by Ben Thompson. Whether snaffling sausages or having a heroic Lassie moment, he’s constantly enchanting.
That’s the kind of innocent, and inherently theatrical, charm that the show could use more of. But, between a committed cast and those enduringly glorious songs, this is still wonderful family fun.
The Wizard of Oz is at the London Palladium through 3 September. Book The Wizard of Oz tickets on London Theatre.
Photo credit: The Wizard of Oz (Photo by Marc Brenner)
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