Featuring TV’s Danielle Hope as Dorothy and Bill Kenwright as the Harbinger of Doom.
We were astonished to read that co-producer Mister Bill Kenwright had been treading the Palladium boards as warm-up man for Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s new production of The Wizard of Oz. Frankly, it seemed unlikely.
But it is true.
It was true on Tuesday evening, anyway. There he was, reminiscing about Sunday Night at the London Palladium, talking up the quality of the orchestra, the beauty of the sets and the “zillions” (which must mean TWOO has now outstripped Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark as the most expensive musical of all time) spent on the double stage revolve.
Stopping just short of slapping a thigh he encouraged the crowd to sing along, clap, cheer, scream and boo the wicked witch before casually dropping in the fact that Michael Crawford wouldn’t actually be giving his wonderful Wizard or his Professor Marvel. Or his Emerald City doorman, come to that. It’s times like this make you wish for the simple white slip poking out of your programme.
The cause? Not mere laryngitis but “blood on his nodules”, apparently – a medical detail that perhaps unsurprisingly failed to whip the crowd much further into the desired state of frenzy but which did cause the Whingers to kick themselves for not packing the WEW Patent Rectal Thermometer.
An economically monickered understudy called “Zeph” (usually “Munchkin Mayor/Ensemble”) would be stepping into Mister Crawford’s beret.
Poor Zeph. Armed only with ill-fitting costumes, a reluctant-looking wig, the book and an expression of panic on his face, he gamely soldiered through in the thankless role of “Michael Crawford’s Understudy” – less Dorothy’s dream, more actor’s nightmare. But in the last analysis surely only a monster could blame him for being unable to recall the tunes and the lyrics of the first act number with which Mister Andrew Lloyd Webber and Mister Tim Rice have saddled him – a list song called “The Wonders Of The World” .
But anyway, as Mister Kenwright had reminded the audience, this was a preview – news which, for the record, was met mostly with a mystified silence by Joe and Joanne Public and their noisily confectioned offspring Jocasta and Jonathon who were all just here to see that girl off the telly in the sequel to Wicked.
And goodness but it’s difficult to stop the unwanted memories of Wicked from flooding back, not least when confronted with Glinda’s (Emily Tierney) gravity-defying entrance frock or the visual styling of the inhabitants of the Emerald City as they fanny around the stage courtesy of Arlene Phillips‘ choreography.
Hannah Waddingham – currently cornering the somewhat niche musical theatre witch market – is, as expected, a terrific Wicked Witch of the West who put Phil in mind of Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus. For some reason she here dwells in some sort of facisitic Eastern European speakeasy, but at least her guards will keep be able to keep her plumbing ticking over nicely. Hats off to her (not that she wears one) for descending through the Palladium roof on a broomstick. Phil would have screamed “She’s above you” if his vertigo vapours hadn’t been kicking in so violently.
Also flying above the audience’s heads were one or two gags including one about being proud to be a “friend of Dorothy” and a surprisingly highbrow one about The Lion in Winter.
Back on the ground, Paul Keating‘s status as Yet-Another-WEW-Favourite remains untarnished with his amiable, seemingly limbless Scarecrow and David Ganly‘s Lion has a wonderful tail although thanks to his mane and make-up Andrew couldn’t stop thinking of Tim Minchin whenever he appeared. Edward Baker-Duly (Ashley Wilkes in Trevor Nunn’s Gone With The Wind – The Musical! and von Ribbentrop in the recent Upstairs, Downstairs revival) turns out to have a rather fine gift for comedy and gives a particularly good Tin Man. He would probably, albeit jerkily, walk away with the show if it weren’t for the star, of whom more later.
It will perhaps comes as no surprise that the Whingers were unmoved by the new songs which have been written to fill in the gaps left by Harold Arlen and E. Y. (Yip) Harburg in the original. You can understand why they felt the need to try – as a musical The Wizard of Oz is rather eccentric and severely hampered by the fact that the closest thing the show has to an Eleven O’Clock Number (“Somewhere Over The Rainbow”) would normally be delivered at about ten past seven (Tuesday performances begin at 7pm) or twenty past seven if Mister K has been bigging things up and making balloon sculptures to entertain the crowds. As far as we were concerned the Wizard’s “Bring Me the Broomstick” could have neatly been replaced by “Buy-A-Broom” which if nothing else would have brought the dragging second act to a brisker conclusion.
TV (Over the Rainbow)-cast Miss Hope acquits herself quite well in the role of chief dog wrangler and the show has moments of visual interest: “beautiful” sets (by Robert Jones) twirl, rise and drop expensively as promised (although it was the projection of the tornado which rather mysteriously earned applause), monkeys fly, pyrotechnics pyrotech but when the star of the show was on stage we barely noticed.
Yes, Toto (Bobby, Razzamatazz, Dazzle or Topper) was fantastic. They say you should never work with animals or children (a maxim which must be awkward to live by if you are a petting zoo-keeper) and here is an object lesson of why that is: Toto – on stage practically all the time – was marvellously, completely unfazed by the drama or spectacle going on around him but was instead fascinated by the odd smell on a floorboard or a glimpse of something in the wings. Toto’s honesty showed up everything going on around him as the fragile tissue of lies on which theatre is built.
Perhaps, in retrospect, they should have crossed the fine line they were occasionally treading anyway and gone a little more panto by employing a man in a dog suit. And while they are at it some real water in the bucket that Dorothy throws over the witch would have made for a decent slosh scene, something criminally lacking in most other pantos we have seen recently.
Mister Zeph’s final indignity was to take the penultimate curtain call and we found ourselves very much rooting for him which was something of a revelation because the Whingers had come to the London Palladium believing themselves to be devoid of hearts and brains and courage (and any liver worthy of the name).
But it turns out we must have had hearts all along. Isn’t that nice?