By Jessica Durston
Recently I clicked my heels together three times and found myself at the New Theatre in Oxford again for the press night of The Wizard of Oz: The Musical. Having seen the original film many times, I was looking forward to being whirled away over the rainbow to the merry old land of Oz.
The night felt magical before the show even started. The theatre staff cut no corners with the decoration of their wonderful piano bar. The area was kitted out with luminous emerald balloons, lights and other finishes to make you feel as if you really had been whisked away to the fictional Emerald City. There were blue and white gingham tablecloths to match Dorothy’s dress, and even a yellow brick road you could follow to the barside to purchase your drinks.
The narrative of the musical very closely follows the 1939 silver screen classic, with modern twists and updates to keep audience members engaged. Colin Richmond’s set design takes inspiration from all kinds of decades, and references an amalgamation of different aspects of pop culture - both from the past and the future. It’s the same old Dorothy meeting the same classic characters but in a brand new trippy, acid 80s, kooky, pop art, day glo setting…and it just works.
So let’s talk cast members - Aviva Tulley took on the role of Dorothy. During her singing numbers, her crystal clear voice peeled out into the cavernous theatre like a bell. She delivered some wonderful vocals and really captured Dorothy’s headstrong yet innocent good nature.
Alongside Aviva were Benjamin Yates (as the Scarecrow), Martin McCarthy (as the Tin Man), and Nic Greenshields (as the Cowardly Lion). The four of them gelled well together, and their on-stage chemistry was believable.
Although all the men are obviously well-seasoned performers and were loveable throughout, I think Benjamin Yates just had the edge with his embodiment of the Scarecrow character. His rendition of ‘If I Only Had A Brain’, with his gangly, slapstick choreography, was definitely one of the more memorable numbers in the show.
Drag superstar The Vivienne (previous winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK) was cast as The Wicked Witch of the West. This iconic role obviously requires some gusto and a commanding stage presence, and The Vivienne delivered! It was wonderful to see this wonderful drag performer shine in a different setting than reality television. The Vivienne was truly captivating, and proved that his acting, singing and dancing skills are certainly of a theatre stage standard. The Witch’s momentous melting scene was especially unforgettable.
Additionally, Emily Bull and Alex Bourne multi-roled well as Aunt Em/Glinda the Good Witch, and Professor Marvel/The Wizard, and brought much wonder and excitement to the show. Abigail Matthews is another cast member I feel I must mention. She was Toto’s puppeteer, and emulated the body language and mannerisms of a dog wonderfully. Her puppetry magic really brought Dorothy’s adored sidekick to life - and how Abigail does not permanently injure her back each night as she bends and stoops whilst parading the four legged friend round the stage, I will never know. Very impressive.
I would like to add that although I do not have the space to list and discuss all of the ensemble cast members by name, let it be said that they were all fantastic, and worked in unison with one another to create the high-production feel that The Wizard of Oz tour has.
The live band is also integral to the success and high-production feel of the show. All the musicians played their hearts out, and brought the big cinematic score to life in the smaller-scale Oxford theatre. As well as all the iconic songs that can be found in the original feature film, the musical’s soundtrack also contains some original songs written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. These tracks blended in seamlessly well alongside the well-known numbers.
Hearing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ belted out by Aviva Tulley, accompanied by the live musicians was a wonderful experience. As well as this number, I would say The Vivienne’s performance of ‘Red Shoes Blues’ stood out. The drag performer’s dedication to the role and the song - alongside the smoke, fantastic flying monkeys, and throne set piece - made for a memorable part of the show.
Furthermore, all the different backdrops and set pieces were bold and eye-catching, and the scene changes were smooth and professional. I was particularly impressed with the yellow brick road set pieces that could be moved around and climbed over by the cast members whilst they were on their journey. Audience members are also able to catch more of a glimpse inside the Wicked Witch of the West’s evil lair, and the ‘Poppy Motel’ located in the seedy, pulpy downton end of Oz.
Additionally, Rachael Canning’s costume and puppet design matches Colin Richmond’s eclectic set choices. Lots of thought, creativity, and imagination went into the characters’ clothing - especially for the ensemble cast in Munchkin Land and Emerald City numbers. I also liked the fact that Dorothy’s ruby slippers were lit constantly under spotlight to draw attention to them and to give them an otherworldly glowing glitter effect whilst she moved around the stage.
In keeping with the show’s modern feel, on many occasions projection screens and digital additions were also used to bring the story together and achieve scenes that would otherwise be difficult to create with props and cast members alone. In particular I am thinking of the head-spinning scenes where Dorothy is whisked away to Oz, and where she meets The Wizard.
Moreover, Shay Barclay’s choreography shone amongst the stunning backdrops, and gave the musical a real ‘straight-off-broadway’ feel. The ensemble cast members were able to show off their dancing talent against such a colourful and interesting setting, and the stage never felt bare.
This family-friendly show provides the most perfect transporting night of fantasy - and a fresh take on such a well-loved tale. I would encourage little children, big kids and families alike to get themselves booked in for a theatrical treat whilst the show is still touring the UK.
More information about The Wizard of Oz: The Musical can be found on its website at: https://london.wizardofozmusical.com/
More information about the upcoming shows at the New Theatre, Oxford, can be found online at https://www.atgtickets.com/venues/new-theatre-oxford/