It must be quite a challenge to stage something as iconic as The Wizard of Oz. How do you breathe new life into a story that’s become part of popular culture without taking away the magic?
James Brining appears to have hit just the right note in the first show to premiere at Leeds Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre since the venue’s refurbishment.
Unlike so many other productions of L Frank Baum’s story, this Dorothy is played by a child. Lucy Sherman (who played the role on press night – through the run she’ll alternate with Agatha Meehan) gives a remarkably assured performance, displaying a strong voice when singing Over the Rainbow and managing to maintain a credible Midwestern accent.
Dorothy’s friends have been updated, too – there’s a female Scarecrow, a gay Tin Man and a black Cowardly Lion (a superb comic turn from Marcus Ayton), while Toto is represented by a real dog in the Kansas section and some realistic puppetry controlled by Ailsa Dalling when we get to Oz.
There’s also a wonderfully camp performance from Polly Lister as the Wicked Witch, cackling her heart out like a real pantomime villain.
As befits a big family musical, it’s the set pieces that stick in the memory: a Busby Berkeley-style dance number to The Merry Old Land of Oz, a terrifying attack of the Flying Monkeys, and the surreal reveal of the Wizard himself.
Brining uses clever touches from the start, such as video projections to recreate Kansas, while Simon Higlett’s set lends the Emerald City a futuristic sheen.
There may be a few too many reprises of the same old songs, but that’s a flaw with the source material rather than the production itself. From the delighted look of the many children in the audience, this is a Wizard of Oz ready for a whole new generation to fall in love with.