The Victorian theatre of spectacle is alive and well, and residing at the London Palladium. But although this adaptation of the Frank Baum book and the 1939 movie, with additional songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, is quite an eyeful, it’s somewhat lacking in humanity. I came out feeling blitzkrieged rather than charmed.
The star of the show is undoubtedly the set and costume designer, Robert Jones. The Kansas cyclone that whisks Dorothy into a dreamworld is evoked through vorticist projections (the work of Jon Driscoll) that betoken chaos in the cosmos. The Yellow Brick Road is on a tilted revolve from inside which poppyfields and labyrinthine forest emerge. The Emerald City is full of steeply inclined walls suggesting a drunkard’s vision of the Chrysler Building lobby. And the Wicked Witch of the West inhabits a rotating dungeon that might be a Piranesi nightmare.
Not since 19th century Drury Lane melodramas can London have seen anything quite like it; one has to admire the director and co-adaptor, Jeremy Sams, for marshalling the effects. But the story and the people get swamped. Danielle Hope shows a natural, easy presence as Dorothy, but can’t hope to compete with the scenery. Even Michael Crawford, playing both Professor Marvel and The Wizard, seems slightly subdued, and misses a trick by not highlighting the latter’s resemblance to PT Barnum whom he once played. Only two of the cast transcend the spectacle. Hannah Waddingham makes the Wicked Witch a pointy-chinned ogre who at one point flies over the audience’s heads with an elan that Spider Man might envy. David Ganly notches up a first by making the Cowardly Lion explicitly gay and announcing “I’m proud to be a friend of Dorothy.”
Of course, there are the songs; it’s good to be reminded of such classics as Over The Rainbow, We’re Off To See The Wizard, and Follow The Yellow Brick Road. The additions by Lloyd Webber and Rice are also perfectly acceptable. Dorothy is given a good plaintive opening number, and Red Shoes Blues, sung by the Wicked Witch, has a pounding intensity. But, as a film scholar remarked to me, the movie was a story with songs rather than a full-blown musical. That delicate balance has been changed, and an essentially simple fable about the importance of individual worth seems overblown.
I suspect in the end the show will be critic-proof and people will go to see both the winner of the TV talent contest and to luxuriate in the sumptuous visuals. But the paradox of the evening is that it suffers the same dilemma as the Tin Man: it might have been so much more if it only had a heart.
* About the Author: Michael Billington is the Guardian’s theatre critic. Guardian.co.uk