Last night’s performance of “The Wizard Of Oz” at the Storyhouse in Chester was a bit surreal. The script and music were from the familiar 1939 MGM film, based on L. Frank Baum’s original novel for children - but James Perkins’ production design leaned more towards a modernised mash-up of “Mad Max” meets “The Wiz”! My assistant reviewer, age eleven, laughed all the way through, clapped regularly, and loudly exclaimed: “Oh, that’s just CLEVER!” a number of times. “This is the weirdest show I’ve ever seen” she said happily afterwards. And: “Cool special effects!”
Consuela Rolle’s performance dropped Dorothy’s playing age to about eight years old, modernised her almost to the present in short blue denim overalls and a backpack, and made her a lively bundle of cuteness and feistiness. Her voice echoed Judy Garland’s soft, sweet tones – and Rolle most certainly can sing! – but her energetic personality was entirely her own. Bailey, an adorable little shitzu-poodle cross, accompanied her as Toto.
The production opened in a vaguely Dust Bowl-era Kansas, using a clever set that only let us see part of the action at a time, in a letterbox style. Cramped and confined in this world, Dorothy’s family of Aunt Em (Natasha Bain) and Uncle Henry (Kenny Thompson) saw off the fearsome Miss Gulch (Zara Ramm) with great humour, but still upset Dorothy enough to pack her backpack and run away from home. Getting as far as travelling salesman Professor Marvel (Fergus Rattigan), Dorothy started returning home, only to be sucked up while in her bedroom in a fierce twister that blew her to the wonderful world of Oz.
The twister scene was incredibly well-done – Assistant Reviewer was in raptures at the work of Perkins and lighting designer Prema Mehta, which brought the special effects out into the audience space for a full participatory experience – and set the tone for an urban-style fantasy production in which anything could happen. Poppy petals and snowflakes fell from the ceiling, bits of the Scarecrow went missing and were found in the audience (“Your hand’s just been eaten by that man!” accused the Lion), and the Wicked Witch’s screams and cackles boomed around the theatre through multiple speakers.
Natasha Bain and Zara Ramm reappeared as the Good Witch of the North and the Wicked Witch of the West respectively, perfectly matching each other in power and brandishing their wands at each other like light sabres. Fergus Rattigan’s reappearance as The Wizard was amplified by most of his performance being seen as a large projected image of just his powerful, imperiously-speaking mouth – in contrast to his neat and dapper persona once he’d been exposed as a fraud. Kenny Thompson traded in his farmer’s overalls for a sequinned silver coat, and as the Emerald City Guard led a chorus of local community actors in several showstoppers that were a swirl of swinging green costumes.
An ensemble of children from local dance school 'House Of Dance' were smeared in industrial blue paint, and showed that lollipop-singing Munchkins can still dance with edge. Rory McNerney headed up the professional ensemble in several cameos, including the glow-in-the-dark Jitterbug. And accompanying Dorothy on every step of her magical adventure were her three faithful companions: Natalie Woods as the super-flexible Scarecrow who could also tap-dance, Ben Oliver as the Tin Man who could make very impressive noises with half his face rusted together, and Richard Colvin as the Cowardly Lion, sad and dread-locked and keeping up a witty commentary on the show and the audience as he nervously pulled at his tail.
Director Alex Clifton has pulled all these very disparate elements together into a family production that is exciting, innovative, and very, very memorable. You will not be disappointed. Go!
Reviewer - Thalia Terpsichore
on - 13/12/18