The Munchkins, with Dorothy in the centre, delight in the novel demise of the Wicked Witch of East who has been transformed into the foundations of Dorothy's wrecked house. Pictures: Graeme Braidwood

The Wizard of Oz

Birmingham Rep


First a confession! On my list of shows I never want to see again The Wizard of Oz is up there along with shows that deservedly died a death and those that should never have been born in the first place.

So to leave the Rep with a smile, awash with festive feel goodery - and nothing to do with the interval mulled wine before you ask – is quite remarkable, but then this is quite a remarkable show filled with imaginative surprises and delightful performances

It is clever, inventive, fun and compelling theatre bringing a freshness to L Frank Baum’s tale, paying lip service, with music of course, to the 1939 Judy Garland MGM classic, but no more. This is not a stage adaptation of the Oscar winner, although there was one nod to the golden age of Hollywood with a flowing dance number as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, negates the Wicked Witch of the West’s spell in the poppy fields.

The dancers in long flowing, fur-trimmed white coats and white fur hats, appearing first as a picture in a tastefully staged group had more than a hint of Busby Berkeley about them.

The story is so well known to adults that it needs little retelling here, but to children, and that’s who the 1900 novel was meant for, this is a whole new adventure for them to marvel at and enjoy.

It’s still The Wizard of Oz but director Liam Steel and designer Angela Davies have left MGM’s 1930’s, depression hit Kansas in the past. The essence of the tale and the songs are still there, but this version has a modern vibrancy, a new sparkle which resonates with a 21st century generation.

For example, the frame of Dorothy’s Kansas home becomes Munchkinland, forests, poppy fields, the witches castle, or the Emerald City, where the neon signs advertise such shows as A Choruz Line or Lez Mizerables, while you can have a drink in Cozta, all changed by LED lights and Nick Richings' lighting.

Using a stage revolve and this simple effective set has the double advantage of speeding scene changes, usually as our band of Dorothy, Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow follow the Yellow Brick Road, and secondly tying the two elements of the story together, the reality of the Kansas farm hit by a tornado and Dorothy’s fantasy in Oz all on the same basic set.

The Yellow Brick Road is another clever touch opening with a number of yellow lit steps constantly moved into position on the revolve to create an up and down journey, or a yellow clad ensemble with brooms, again on the revolve, creating another road and the illusion of a difficult journey.


Chisara Agor as Dorothy, dreaming of somewhere over the rainbow

The first surprise is the Munchkins, who puppet designer Samuel Wyer has turned into half person half puppet puppets. It works brilliantly, they are great fun although, and don’t take this the wrong way Munchkins, pretty they ain’t.

There are also giant ghouls and poppies to encounter, flying monkeys, indeed plenty of flying, along with talking trees. All the elements and songs of the original screenplay are there but in a fresh, new telling.

Dorothy is beautifully played by Chisara Agor, feisty when needs be, and still enough of a little girl to make the story work with a lovely voice and performance of the show’s iconic number, the Oscar winning Over the Rainbow.

Then we get on to the buy one get one free characters. Shanay Holmes does a good job as Aunt Em in the real world and a rather glamorous Glinda in Oz while Thomas Vernal doubles up as the down to earth Uncle Henry and the kindly guard in Oz.

Then, a break in tradition, the horrible Miss Gulch who tries to get Toto, Dorothy’s dog, destroyed, then proves you can’t keep a bad man down – yes it’s a man – as the deliciously evil Jos Vantyler then turns up as The Wicked Witch of the West turning nastiness into an art form. It is a departure from the normal female role but in truth you would never know it was a man – and he did fare better than Margaret Hamilton did playing the roles in the 1939 film.

She suffered a second-degree burn on her face and a third-degree burn on her hand filming her fiery exit from Munchkinland – which had her hospitalised and then off work for six weeks.

The farm hands, Hunk, Hickory and Zeke are, well farm hands, in the reality of Kansas, but they come into their own big time in Oz led by Ed Wade as Scarecrow, in search of a brain. He has a lovely athletic entry with remarkably wobbly legs.

Dillon Scott-Lewis is somewhat less athletic, in fact he doesn’t move at all as a result of rusting up as the Tin Man – tin doesn’t actually rust but we will let that one slide, which is more than we can say for the seized up Tin Man whose one desire is a heart.


Lorna Laidlaw as the Wizard with Ed Wade as the Scarecrow

Then, put them dukes up, put em up, comes the battling lion, unless you stand up to her of course, in which case she will run a mile. Another break from tradition with Kelly Agbowu as, well, a lioness.

She joins the merry band in search of courage and sports not so much a roar as a cracking singing voice. They set off to seek the fabled wizard for brain, heart, courage and, for Dorothy, the cance to go home.

Then we have Lorna Laidlaw as Professor Marvel in another gender change from the original. The Prof is the dodgy fortune-teller living in a bike-pulled caravan and Lorna then turns up as the equally dodgy Wizard of Oz, who is fronted by a magical huge green Mekon style head (ask Grandad and his Eagle comics about that one).

She gives a wonderful performance with some well worked comedy and displays the one thing you cannot teach, brilliant timing. Incidentally, if any directors or producers are reading this and can’t get hold of Whoopi Goldberg for their next production – I would happily recommend they give Lorna a call. She is a delight.

The biggest oohs and aaahs of the night though, came for Rio, one of three dogs playing the role of Toto, and played with a mix of mild interest and an air of take it or leave it when it comes to this acting lark. A puppet, operated by Ben Thompson, the puppet Captain, becomes Toto for the visit to Oz where the script demands more of Toto than just be like, well, a dog.

The strong ensemble give us everything else from crows to jitterbugs, monkeys to Munchkins, anyone or anything required. The whole show is a delight, beautifully acted, lively dancing, clever sets and music we know which is well sung. Not much more you can ask for. 

A mention too for associate choreographer Matt Nicholson who produces some fast paced routines that flow with the story and Ben Hart who has come up with a couple of great illusions involving the wicked witch.

Then there is the excellent six piece band under musical director George Dyer sounding much bigger than they are.

If there is a fault it is perhaps that the show needs a little tightening up, particularly in the second act; it’s running time, just shy of three hours including interval, is a bit long for young ones who could also find evening performances making for a late night..

 Not that it isn’t slick, mind you, and it never drags, but a little tweaking would not go amiss. Not that that is a criticism, it is a very technical show and also a new production, so, as is the way of all things theatre, it needs a little time to bed in.

It is a real Christmas cracker of a show, a fun alternative, or even addition to panto, with a clever refreshing of a classic children’s tale which will delight a new generation of youngsters – I’ve even taken The Wizard of Oz off my list of things I never want to see again. So follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Rep – you won’t be disappointed. To 13-01-19.

Roger Clarke


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