Monday, 30 October 2017

Theatre Review: The Wizard Of Oz - Epstein Theatre, Liverpool

Image Source: Bill Elms
Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Pantomime
Genre: Comedy
Date: October 29 2017
Location: Epstein Theatre, Liverpool

The Wizard Of Oz is one of the grandest, most magical and most popular stories of all-time. The tale of Dorothy and Toto having to overcome the Wicked Witch and appease The Wizard Of Oz in order to return home from Kansas, with assistance along the way from three unusual yet trustworthy accomplices (Scarecrow, Tin-Tin & The Cowardly Lion), is one that I'm sure everybody reading this will have seen in the form of the classic 1939 movie.

A theatre version of TWOZ is currently touring the region, and it has just completed a stop-off at the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool. So, it was with anticipation and a fair bit of excitement that I headed to one of my local venues to see an all-time great story come to life in physical form.

I mentioned the basic plot of the story earlier, so it's hardly worth me reiterating; instead, I'll jump straight to the performances. Cheryl Fergison was on form as the Wicked Witch, mixing some typically evil insults with pop culture references and the occasional nod to her background as Heather Trott in EastEnders. Maddie Hope Coelho was believable as Dorothy, and her renditions (one near the beginning, one at the end) of Somewhere Over The Rainbow were stunning, drawing much applause and positive feedback from the Epstein audience.

Elsewhere, we had a talented crew on offer to play the other major roles, with David Heath in the role of Scarecrow, Phillip McGuinness as Tin-Man and Richard Hazlewood as The Cowardly Lion. Add to that a few hilarious scenes, a soundtrack which combined vintage TWOZ tracks with modern hits, and some funky dance moves - oh, and the use of a real dog as Toto - and you have a guaranteed recipe for success, right? Especially when you factor in the effective use of pre-recorded video footage to demonstrate Dorothy's journey to Oz from Kansas and vice versa, some excellent backdrops, and costumes which were as faithful to the movie as you could possibly expect.

However, I had a couple of issues with the production. For one, there were a fair few technical glitches, and some characters that weren't meant to be on the stage were visible via the side curtains on more than one occasion. I could overlook this, but not the way in which the story - which, as I mentioned earlier, virtually everybody knows - was modified for seemingly no reason. I won't provide spoilers, but The Wizard's true identity, and how this was revealed, was disappointing, and despite the video scenes showing how Dorothy returns home, we don't get the scene where she recognises the same faces that she met in Oz, one of the key elements of the film. I'll overlook the lack of a multi-coloured horse, though, since admittedly that would be extremely hard to pull off in a theatre setting.

The biggest problem, though, is that judging by the way in which the show was presented, those in charge haven't worked out whether they wanted this to be a pantomime or a play, and in the latter case, whether they wanted it to be comedic or serious. There are undoubtedly many moments of mirth, but with the exception of the Wicked Witch, there was barely any audience interaction in the first half, and some performers occasionally hammed up their roles to the point where they appeared to forget that the purpose of the show was to make people laugh, rather than actually trying to portray the characters from the famous movie. It's not to say that the show was super-serious by any means, but it was hard to determine which direction the producers were looking to take the show into. It's also no surprise that the second half was more enjoyable because there was a greater emphasis on comedy and audience interaction, which the crowd lapped up, and it resembled the panto that I and many other attendees assumed it was meant to be.

These criticisms were certainly not enough to spoil the show, though: I had a great time, and certain elements of the production were as good as you will see amongst pantomimes and children's shows. Indeed, in terms of bringing The Wizard Of Oz to life, this particular portrayal did a fine job, and the kids and adults alike will have gone away looking to rewatch the film and experience more of the magic from Oz. I just hope that the production team will make slight adjustments to the script and decide whether they want to go down the panto route or whether they want this to be more of a play with a comedic edge. If they find their niche, and adjust the script slightly from there, then this show could be elevated to can't-miss territory.

(You can read an interview I conducted with Cheryl and David about The Wizard Of Oz by clicking here.)

Overall Rating: 8/10 - Very Good

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