The opening of the impressively renovated Quarry Theatre coincides with one of Leeds Playhouse’s most ambitious Christmas shows to date — an epic stage version of silver screen musical fantasy The Wizard of Oz.
You might think a story originating in the dry and dusty Midwest is an inspired choice for a festive production. Yet, with a boot full of recognisable songs, fantastical characters and an arch villainess, The Wizard of Oz is a surprisingly good fit in a glittering Christmas programme. But it’s by no means your traditional pantomime…
James Brining’s version for stage mostly adheres to its cinematic source in tone and pace, feeling authentic if not a touch uneven in the middle due to a wandering script that can’t hide its advancing age.
But stylistically, it’s lovingly influenced by the late 1930s’ iconography of the MGM Studios era, launching from a sepia-toned patina in the first act into a saturated sweetshop of Technicolor magic as Dorothy and Toto explore the fantasy land of Oz and its bizarre bounty of creatures.
Like the film, the show is confidently sustained by its vivid and sympathetic characters. Dorothy is brought to life in a sincere and alert performance by, showcasing an effortless vocal with perfect Western diction.
Sam Harrison returns to the Playhouse as a brilliantly quirky Tin Man in a mesmerising costume, whilst Marcus Ayton bowls over a very original interpretation of the Cowardly Lion as a prancing boxer.
Eleanor Sutton’s Scarecrow is equally enchanting, providing a fluid movement to her supposedly boneless frame. In a scene-stealing performance, Polly Lister is sure to haunt many dreams as the deliciously nasty Wicked Witch — the ideal villain for the Christmas season.
Special note must also go to the skilful on-stage puppetry which covers a taxonomy of fabulous creatures. The Playhouse always excels in this classic craft and the beautiful realisation of Toto by Ailsa Dalling demonstrates the real value of live movement over more complex visual effects.
The overwhelming range of locations across Oz are well established with some imaginative set pieces. Silks, trapeze and rolling stock give much physical movement to the landscape, which is often enhanced or overlayed with busy video projections. Mostly the combination works well, other times it feels as two mediums are fighting for your attention.
More consistency can be found in the soundscape, with Tamara Saringer’s soaring musical direction delivering scale and scope. Trusted favourites such as Somewhere Over the Rainbow, We’re Off to See the Wizard and The Merry Old Land of Oz are revived with a fresh dynamism. The heavily resourced orchestra featuring reeds, brass, strings and drums ensures the old songs sound richer, bigger and brighter than ever.
Beyond the fairyland, The Wizard of Oz only has a small story to tell, yet it still delivers expansive visuals, uplifting music and captivating performances. Often epic, always ambitious and distinct from the usual seasonal offering, this inspired musical is a great opportunity to relive the original adventure that spawned an extended universe of sequels and spinoffs. It’s a cherished classic — renewed with an abundance of fantasy, flair and force. Get off to see the wizard.