“America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale” (The Library of Congress) is brought colourfully to life in a bold new reimagining of L. Frank Baum’s classic ‘The Wizard of Oz’ by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, with direction from Liam Steel.
‘The Wizard of Oz’ follows Dorothy after she runs away from home, is swept up in a storm, hits her head, and awakens to find herself in the magical land of Oz. Alongside her dog Toto, she sets off on a journey to find her way back home. However, as with all journeys, “it’s not where you go, it’s who you meet along the way”.
The production begins with the black and white narrative of Dorothy’s home life in Kansas – the sepia colour palette used in the sets and props mirroring the mundaneness of her everyday life. In fact, the only multi-colour to be found is on Dorothy’s t-shirt, on which a rainbow is emblazoned, a testament to her vivid imagination, an imagination that is soon to fuel the imagination of the audience as we are enveloped in it.
After Dorothy’s loyal canine companion Toto bites wicked neighbour Miss Gulch, Dorothy and Toto run away, but a chance encounter with the mysterious Professor Marvel encourages her to hurry home to her family. However, a terrible storm begins to rage, and Dorothy’s farmhouse is torn apart as sections of the wall are lifted from their foundations, whilst Dorothy herself is thrown into the air. Dorothy is hit on the head, and knocked unconsciousness, only to wake up in the merry old land of Oz.
Chisara Agor’s practical, dungaree- and doc martens- wearing Dorothy strikes the right balance between childish innocence and naivety, and the headstrong determination needed to triumph over adversity. On her journey to meet the Wizard, she meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. Ed Wade’s agile and witty Scarecrow hopes for a brain, Dillon Scott-Lewis’ body-popping, robotic Tin Man desires a heart, and Kelly Agbowu’s soulful and loveable Lion longs for courage, so she might become Queen of the Forest.
However, the four face an adversary in Jos Vantyler’s fabulously evil Wicked Witch of the West. When Dorothy landed in Oz, her house rather clumsily dropped on the Wicked Witch’s sister. Before our very eyes, the ruby slippers which adorned the feet of the Wicked Witch of the East disappear, re-appearing on Dorothy’s feet. Vantyler’s Wicked Witch desires revenge, and wants the slippers for herself. Dorothy must enlist the help of the Wizard before it is too late.
When Dorothy is captured by the flying monkeys and taken to the Wicked Witch’s castle, it is up to her new friends to overcome their fears, their supposed lack of brains, heart and courage, to save her.
A masterpiece in set, costume, sound, lighting and illusion, this production delights all the senses, appealing to all. The sepia tones of Kansas bookend a vibrant land of colour, a land of vivid technicolour, which lifts characters and audience alike out of a world of black and white, and propels us into this rainbow of colour. Angela Davies’ impressive sets give a great sense of scale, whilst a revolving floor gives us a sense of movement as we follow these characters on their journey, along the highs and lows of the Yellow Brick Road, finishing at the glittering green Emerald City.
The Emerald City in particular is a sight to behold. The stage awash with green, as though we are watching the drama unfold through green-tinted spectacles, the Emerald City is the fashion capital of Oz, and its citizens pose in frames, wearing the most outrageously flamboyant costume. The names of well-known, modern-day brands have been Ozified in this glittering city – we see signs for Oreoz, Cozta, Stozbucks, McDoznalds, and Dunkin Doznuts.
Nick Riching’s clever lighting design showcases all the colours of the rainbow, ranging from the blue of Munchkin Land (their favourite colour, we are told), to the vivid green of the Emerald City, and the fierce red of the Wicked Witch’s castle. There seems to be a different colour to correspond to certain scenes, certain locations, even certain characters, which itself helps create a desired atmosphere, creating different tones in accordance with the mood onstage.
The songs we all know and love from the iconic 1939 MGM film version are present within this production, although slightly different arrangements lending themselves to different styles of music result in songs that feel refreshingly modern. Original orchestrations by musical director George Dyer leading into these songs are bold and inventive, and help to add a greater sense of characterisation and development. The styles of music used compliment the personalities of the characters, whilst Peter Howard’s dance arrangements and Matt Nicholson’s choreography cleverly compliments each style of music, played live by a band in the pit. The wizardry of illusionist Ben Hart brilliantly brings the magic of Oz to life.
Samuel Wyers costumes are excellent, putting a modern spin on the traditional dress of these characters, and his incredible puppets bring an element of the fantastical into this imaginary world. Toto becomes a puppet in Oz, and is manoeuvred with such an attention to detail, displaying all the same canine characteristics as his real-life counterpart does in the show’s Kansas scenes – sniffing strange and unfamiliar objects, cocking his head, responding to others, even rolling over to have his tummy tickled. Large shadowy, dementor-like spooks show our characters the way to the Witch’s castle, whilst a large mechanical head, expressive in its eye, eyebrow and mouth movements, are used by the Wizard to communicate.
The Munchkins, puppets here, are cleverly manipulated by the actors, whose own legs form the bottom halves of the Munchkins, their three dimensional top halves moving independently, each not only unique in appearance, but with their own distinct personalities.
The skeletal structure of the barn house in Kansas is utilised throughout the production, and transforms into other settings, such as the Emerald City, and the castle of the Wicked Witch. The framework, the foundations of Dorothy’s home life, of her very existence, keeps her grounded in her reality during her time in Oz, placing a firm focus on the idea of home, which remains at the forefront of her mind, motivating her to do everything in her power to return. When in Oz, the idea of home, and of returning to her family, is what grounds Dorothy. The metaphorical framework of her life forms the basis for the land of Oz which, arguably a figment of Dorothy’s imagination, proves that everything in Oz comes from within her – she has always had everything she needed, and the power to do whatever she needed, she had only to learn this for herself.
The fact that the foundations of her home remain present throughout her time in Oz, and that those she knew and loved at home double as characters in Oz (in Glinda, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, even the Wicked Witch), shows that home is never far away, and that Dorothy never really left. Home is never far from her mind, and her journey, which ultimately becomes one of self-discovery, enables her to overcome any obstacles, challenges, in fact any adversity, that moves against her. Home pervades her consciousness, her imagination, and she never once loses sight of it. The heartwarming message resonates with us today, that “if [we] ever go looking for our heart’s desire”, we need not look any further “than [our] own back yard”. “Because if it isn’t there, [we] never really lost it to begin with”.
When our four protagonists finally meet the Wizard, she is exposed as a fraud, a “humbug”. However, the Wizard teaches these loveable characters a very valuable lesson, and this is one that resonates with audiences today. She awards the Scarecrow with a diploma, the Tin Man with a ticking heart-shaped watch, and the Lion with a medal. However, what is clear is that they already had these attributes present within them – the witty Scarecrow had brains in abundance, the Tin Man was full of heart, and when Dorothy was in danger, a once cowardly Lion courageously braved her fears to save her friend. When Glonda arrives to send Dorothy home, she too tells Dorothy that she has always had to power to send herself home, but she had to learn this for herself. An existential journey of self-discovery, our heroes and heroines learn that power, brains, heart and courage has always been within them, and the adversity they faced helped them to realise this.
When Dorothy finds herself back in Kansas, the surreal spectacle of her dream-like journey in Oz faded, we find ourselves once more lost in the sepia tones of her domestic life. Described as a ‘dream sequence’, the land of Oz is brought so vividly, so colourfully to life in this production, with such conviction, it becomes real. The daring dreams of cast and creatives here certainly are made flesh in this technicolour extravaganza, so that the land of Oz becomes something infinitely more real, more relatable, more familiar to us, than the dullness of life in Kansas. This fusion between what is real, and what is a dream, Dorothy’s confusion at the end of the play, blurs those lines between fantasy and reality, and for a time, we too feel that our most exhilarating dreams come have come true, before we must return to the mundaneness of our own lives that exist outside this production, outside the fantastical world we allowed our imagination to explore.
Faithful to Baum’s novel and the famous 1939 MGM film, this production catapults the timeless messages, valuable lessons, and iconic characters of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ into the 21st century, as this classic tale is tornado-ed into a recognisable modern-day landscape that fuels the imagination of the generations of today.
Wildly entertaining, this wicked production will blow you away, transporting you to a land full of hope and wonder, the likes of which you have never seen before.
A sure-fire hit, popular with audiences of all ages, the Birmingham REP’s production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ will bring down the house.