It needed courage, brains and heart to pull off this major stage response to the legendary MGM movie, and the creative team (led by Andrew Lloyd Webber as producer) certainly has the first two qualities. For pluck, it has an untested newcomer (the winner of a television casting show) as Dorothy; a spectacular complex set that rises, falls and revolves; and, boldly ignoring all adages about working with animals, a dog that is permanently onstage (a West Highland terrier too – not a notably biddable breed).
All three acquit themselves admirably. Danielle Hope makes a lovely Dorothy: open-faced, sincere, feisty, she also manages to convey innocence without being whimsical. Robert Jones’ set fills the huge stage, first with the sepia vastness of Kansas and then the Technicolor weirdness of Oz, all hallucinatory primary colours and wildly attired individuals. We reach Oz via a tornado that combines onstage action with projections (by Jon Driscoll), so that Dorothy and Toto spin around in a solid house, as rubble, livestock and cosmic debris appear to whizz past them. And on opening night the dog put in a show-stealing performance, even bringing a welcome shot of comedy as he seemed distinctly sceptical about following the revolving yellow brick road.
On the brainy side, Jeremy Sams’ production, as well as emphasising the story’s psychological journey, also hints at other readings. Here Oz resembles a fairground version of the early 20th-century US, with the gleaming towers of the Emerald City standing in marked contrast to the industrial hellhole of the Witch’s lair. The links between Kansas and Oz emerge not just in the double casting but in the sense that the whole of Oz has the gaudy, fantastical, mechanised appeal of Professor Marvel’s travelling fair. There are some additional new songs, reuniting composer Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, notably “Red Shoes Blues” for the Wicked Witch of the West. And Hannah Waddingham is excellent in that role: a wild, sardonic presence dressed in livid green, at one point she descends, hair-raisingly, over the audience from the very heights of the Palladium.
But when it comes to heart, there is something missing. Despite all this effort, the show feels strangely empty. It’s partly the story itself: it emphasises event over plot or character development, making it feel repetitive and relentless. It’s both too much and too little; there’s no real emotional engagement. And the ending, with the possibility that it was all a dream, struck my 10-year-old companion as a cop-out.
But it’s also partly the staging, which doesn’t catch the sense of yearning that might compensate. Dorothy’s three travelling companions (Paul Keating, Edward Baker-Duly and David Ganly) are droll but not poignant, while what Hope’s Dorothy lacks is vulnerability. Her delivery of “Over the Rainbow” is warm and spontaneous but misses an edge of real longing. It’s a spectacular, well delivered show but, as the dog so astutely senses, it’s also a pretty long trek on a circular path.