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The Wizard of Oz Jr

by on 18 December 2022

Feel-Good, Festive, Feisty

Wizard of Oz Jr.

by L. Frank Baum, music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg

Dramacube, Hampton Hill Red Cast at Hampton Hill Theatre until 19th December

Review by Daniel Wain

In his programme note, Dramacube producer Steve Leslie draws parallels between The Wizard of Oz and the company’s other Christmas production Legally Blonde.  However, at this time of year, the much-loved tale of Dorothy realising that there’s no place like home seems more akin to panto: with a plucky heroine on a quest, befriended by a motley collection of comic sidekicks, helped by a good fairy and hindered by a wicked one.

Director Matthew Bunn, his creative team and 22-strong Red Cast embrace the feel-good festive mood.  Hannah Calarco’s design is colourfully cartoonish and the set piece numbers, helmed by Rory Cubin and Heather Stockwell, are equally bright and bold.  Special mention must be made of Calarco’s impressive parade of over fifty costumes, with her apple trees a standout.

We all know the story: of Dorothy and her little dog Toto getting blown away from their humdrum Kansas life to the magical Land of Oz, of their homestead crushing the Wicked Witch of the East, for whose death her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, seeks vengeance.  We all know about the ruby red slippers, the Yellow Brick Road and the Emerald City, of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, and of the Munchkins and their apparently omnipotent Wizard.  Though probably few have read L Frank Baum’s original 1900 novel (or indeed his thirteen sequels), nearly all will be familiar with the iconic, Oscar-winning 1939 movie based upon it.  So let’s take the plot as read, or rather seen, and focus instead upon the performances in this latest stage reincarnation of Harold Arlen and Edgar ‘Yip’ Harburg’s musical.

Bunn and his associates do an impressive job of directing this one hour’s traffic of the stage, to misquote Romeo and Juliet ’s Prologue.  With nearly two dozen young performers, there is often quite a crowd to corral and, pleasingly, everyone, regardless of size of role, gets their moment in the spotlight.  This is very much an ensemble piece, and all the better for it.  So congratulations to all those who, while not playing a ‘principal’ role, contribute to a strong and spirited show: Alexander Long, Ella McMinn, Grace O’Hara, Lucy Oxford, Richard Luecking, Rufus Gilbert, Rupert Calarco, Selim Adak, Sofia Tsymbal and Valentina Gavioli.

Some of the blocking goes awry at times, with too much of the early action played too far upstage, where the light is dimmer, and a tendency towards either tight-knit clusters or straight lines (at one point there’s a queue at an exact right angle to the audience so hiding the shorter cast members).  However, such minor issues don’t impair the action and are soon eradicated as soon as the cast burst into song and dance.

While the age range is wide, the level of ability is remarkably even.  There are striking characterisations and very strong diction, particularly from Liberty Best as a highly hissable, marvellously malevolent Wicked Witch and Huey Chalmers as a scene-stealing Scarecrow channelling the cheeky chutzpah of good old American vaudeville with considerable comic skill.  Albi Best makes for a very sweet and sympathetic Dorothy, Remy Gilbert’s Tin Man is appealingly Eeyore-ish and James Curtis’s turn as the Lion provides nice light relief.

Lyla Tucker-Salfield gives us a feisty Aunt Em and Jem Long a laconic Uncle Henry, while Evie Wilson Hamlett’s Glinda the Good Witch is a continually kind and calming presence.  Raphael Cavendish draws considerable focus as an adorable Toto and also proves a nifty dancer in the Jitterbug.  It’s a pity, but understandable given the cast size, that the usual doubles of Professor Marvel and the Wizard, and of Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch, are split up.  However, Alex Voronka makes a mark as a mysterious Marvel, Oliver Musgrave is an ultimately benevolent Wizard and Misty Le Good’s Miss Gulch helps lift the opening scene.

Both the Kansas and Oz scenes are also boosted by atmospheric projections, ominously black and white and then terrifically Technicolour respectively.  While some of the American accents are more successful than others and the occasional high note is missed, the show really bursts into exuberant life during the big numbers, such as the Jitterbug and the Munchkin musical sequence.  This is when the whole cast’s energy and enthusiasm becomes infectious and truly life-affirming.  This may not be a vintage Dramacube production, but it’s pretty close, and certainly the perfect Christmas confection.

Daniel Wain, December 2022

Photography by Simone Sutton

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