Theatre

A tricked-up Andrew Lloyd Webber version of a timeless classic has the viewer realising they’re not in Kansas anymore. By Peter Craven.

‘The Wizard of Oz’

Wizard of Oz stars (from left) Lucy Durack, Samantha Dodemaide, Alex Rathgeber, John Xintavelonis and Eli Cooper.
Credit: Jeff Busby

It’s a weird old caper what we get up to with musicals in this country. Priscilla proved that we could get somewhere with a homegrown example internationally (as well as consolidate something as a national vulgar classic beyond parody) but such things are few and far between.

Musicals are mainly contemporary or old standby versions of Broadway or West End successes, though the productions themselves fall into different categories. The big new shows of which, The Book of Mormon and Matilda (well, that’s another winner given Tim Minchin’s authorship, at least by way of adaptation), though revivals are occasionally sumptuous but more often straw hat – that American term for the threadbare touring model. John Frost will put an immense amount of money into ensuring The Book of Mormon will be done as well as one could conceive of it being done but his revivals – Annie with Anthony Warlow, Fiddler on the Roof with Warlow and Sigrid Thornton – are pretty approximate efforts with little sense of the original fire.

The touring production of The Wizard of Oz – now playing at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre – comes from John Frost but with an enigmatic “by arrangement with The Production Company” byline: it represents a different approximation to musical theatre from either the big time state-of-the-art reproductions or the super rapid stagings of the Pratt Family singers. This is the Andrew Lloyd Webber Wizard of Oz originally associated with one of his TV quest shows in the manner of How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, where the audience gets to choose the star in the vicinity of a panel that might include the Lord himself and John Barrowman and (at least during one season) Barry Humphries.

The original production was directed by that veteran of London theatre Jeremy Sams, but apart from the lavishness of the technical wham-bam special effects and the clear evidence that there was once plenty of money to throw around, there’s not much sign that he came anywhere near this production he originated.

So the old Australian principle of amateurism that Patrick White used to inveigh against comes home to roost once more. Lisa Embs-Green – fresh from the United States touring production of The Wizard of Oz, wouldn’t you know – is listed as associate director and is the most probable suspect for this cut-price version of a famous film musical.

It doesn’t help, admittedly, that the Andrew Lloyd Webber additions to the show are banal, unremarkable and dirge-like (despite the assistance of Tim Rice’s lyrics). Yes, The Wizard of Oz in its original incarnation with those wonderful Harold Arlen tunes didn’t have many of them and they dried up in the last quarter of the show but that’s no reason to pad things out with Lloyd Webber at his most pretentious and mundane.

This Wizard of Oz falls into an odd category because it does represent the importation of an expensive high-tech production and it has plenty of thrills for the kids that may well give them an apprehension of how theatre can conjure a world more vivid than the real one. But it’s also directorially undercooked, there’s no great cohesion to the ensemble and the performances tend to be ordinary.

Mercifully at the centre of things Samantha Dodemaide is a vivid and viable Dorothy, but otherwise nothing much shines except for the immemorially reliable Anthony Warlow as Professor Marvel and the Wizard. Nor does it especially help that the two leads from Wicked, Lucy Durack (Glinda) and Jemma Rix (Elphaba), here in that character’s earlier incarnation as the Wicked Witch of the West, are not especially suited to their roles. Their casting comes across as just another unthinking John Frost gimmick.

This Wizard of Oz is visually inventive and busy so the eye is always diverted without anything being very satisfying. The trio of wayfarers who accompany Dorothy seem to be going through their paces and the Yellow Brick Road itself seems to stretch nowhere, it hardly beckons with the promise of happiness through magic.

It’s hard to forget (harder than it should be) that the 1939 Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland – directed in its segments by everybody from Victor Fleming to George Cukor – is one of the greatest popular films ever made and that its greatness can’t be substituted for with casting by numbers.

Nobody ever forgets that the Kansas scenes start in black and white and then when the storm comes, or the dream takes over, everything goes into colour. It’s one of those dazzlingly simple ideas that functions like an evocation of the creation of a world, a one-trick wonder that cannot be repeated but that continues to flood with enchantment everything that follows.

And part of that enchantment is that the realism of the everyday Kansas world is replaced by the highly theatrical glory of the coloured world of Oz. Jeremy Sams’ production – to the extent that it is discernible as a feat of technology – is good with the optics and the projections in conjuring up the tornado and the whirligig but rather less successful in giving length and breadth – let alone height and depth – to the world of the Yellow Brick Road. Apart from anything else, the road itself is scarcely there.

There’s plenty of flashing colour and what might be swagger and scintillation in the movement of, say, the Wicked Witch’s henchmen, but none of it is done with very much precision, and, alas, that slackness tends to operate with the principals as well.

They say never to perform with children or animals. God knows what it indicates but the most consistent and starry performance in the Frost import of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s revamped Wizard of Oz comes from Toto the dog who – through whatever enticement of food or enthralment of drugs – is everything this loveable beast should be, always ready on cue, leaping into laps, ferreting out whatever is needful and looking great. Then, coming a close second, there’s Samantha Dodemaide. She can’t sing like Judy Garland, but she can sing and act and look like the kind of brave young girl you’re happy to travel with. She’s a spot-on young star who commands the power of identification and she should go far even if the voice gets a bit strident.

On the other hand, the two witches from Wicked are not much of an asset. Durack does everything she has to do as Glinda, which is not much apart from glimmer preciously, but her major asset is her voice and what does the Good Witch get to sing? And the Wicked Witch who emerges from Dorothy’s apprehension of Miss Gulch, the nasty Kansas neighbour who wants Toto put down, is a part for an actress as Margaret Hamilton’s superb performance in the film indicated.

Rix struts and snarls well enough in her light opera way but this is a pretty pale sketch of what an actor’s actor – a Robyn Nevin, say – could make of this greenfaced monster who melts into slime. And who’s surprised in this production when the melting itself comes as an anticlimax?

Who can be surprised at anything in this handsome mindless retake that adds a pile of footling and unremarkable Andrew Lloyd Webber songs to a flawless score that everyone has known since childhood.

Nor does it help that the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion make little impact. Is it unfair to recall that in the film Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow danced and acted like a god, that the great Bert Lahr gave a clown’s performance to die for as the Cowardly Lion, and that Jack Haley’s Tin Man was the role of his life?

Not really. Eli Cooper is lithe, I suppose, as the Scarecrow but you wouldn’t have to have Hugh Jackman to do a lot better than this. A comedian like Frank Woodley would have done more with it and what would be wrong with a dancer such as Todd McKenney? You can spend your life not imagining you would ever hunger to see Shane Jacobson again on stage and still find yourself positively longing to see him play the Cowardly Lion given the camp limpness of John Xintavelonis’s Lion. Alex Rathgeber as the Tin Man at least has an upper-level voice and some presence but he’s scarcely a standout.

The only one who is – apart from the dog and the girl – is Anthony Warlow. And poor Warlow is starting to look like a walking encyclopaedia – or perhaps an encyclopaedia salesman – of musical comedy.

The man who sang Papageno in The Magic Flute for the opera before his remarkable Les Mis and Phantom should’ve gone on to sing the great Rodgers and Hammerstein baritone parts – not least Billy Bigelow in Carousel with that tremendous soliloquy. And although he was stricken with an illness that affected and diminished his voice, he has still done everything under the sun. He was commanding in Doctor Zhivago, he could make his way through Annie or Fiddler on the Roof even though the roles were not suited to him, and in the early ’90s he even did an all-but flawless imitation of Rex Harrison’s Higgins in My Fair Lady, though he is primarily a singer–actor rather than an actor forced into song.

Apart from Toto and Dorothy, each of whom must be conceded their natural affinity for what they are doing, Warlow actually acts much better than anyone else on the stage in this fizz of a Wiz.

He is full of bright-eyed fumbling kindliness as Professor Marvel and allows the characterisation to blend with the deflated mystery man behind the screen. He is funny and detailed and radiates warmth and magnetism. The Wizard is hardly a role that should predominate or have a special lustre, but in this Wizard of Oz he does and in practice we feel with Anthony Warlow: for such relief, much thanks.

But what a strange mishmash, what a prolonged mishap we make of musicals that are the great money makers – because they are the great crowd-pleasers – of the age. John Frost, who has made bucketloads of gold out of them, should be a bit more considered about his highway robberies and invest in expert casting and direction: a musical is not just a package of gaudy sets and costumes to skip across our stages. Just as Jeanne Pratt, who has a 20th-anniversary Oklahoma! on at the moment, might ponder the idea of allowing a lot more time for rehearsal as well as digging into her pockets to find first-rate directors.

As for Lloyd Webber, he has achieved everything his talent and his money can buy. Why on earth disimprove The Wizard of Oz?

By the way, if Oklahoma! represents the platonic idea of musical theatricality for you – as opposed to David Bowie or Kendrick Lamar – then you might want to see The Production Company’s anniversary version that closes in Melbourne on Sunday. Anna O’Byrne has great beauty of tone and sheer starry presence as Laurey.

 

Arts Diary

THEATRE Brothers Wreck

Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, June 8-23

CINEMA Sydney Film Festival

Cinemas throughout Sydney, June 6-17

CULTURE Bay of Fires Winter Arts Festival

Venues throughout Tasmania’s northeast coast, June 9-11

MULTIMEDIA Tony Albert: Visible

Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, until October 7

MUSIC National Celtic Festival

Portarlington, Victoria, June 8-11

CLASSICAL Last Night of the Proms

Sydney Opera House, June 8-9

DANCE Stomp

The Star, Gold Coast, until June 3

Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre, June 6-10

Last chance

THEATRE Bliss

Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, until June 2

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 2, 2018 as "Rainbow worrier". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.