Panto has taken over theatres up and down the land, but Chester Storyhouse has opted for a rather different Christmas staple this season.
Artistic director Alex Clifton’s The Wizard of Oz is a (mostly) faithful homage to the 1939 Technicolor movie classic, down to the roaring MGM lion beamed on to the curtain at the start of the show and MGM composer Herbert Stothart’s enjoyable score of incidental music – played live here by a 10-piece orchestra under the musical direction of the in-demand George Francis.
The cast also affect a recognisable tone, with newcomer Consuela Rolle sounding remarkably like Judy Garland at times, at least when delivering her lines if not in the singing stakes.
Initially it’s quite difficult to warm to young Dorothy, who is actually a rather objectionable child at home in Kansas where, in this version, she’s the one, not Toto, that takes a nip out of the grinch-like Miss Gulch’s arm.
But the show itself has charm and there are some beguiling individual performances, not least from Dorothy’s three companions on her Oz odyssey – Natalie Woods’ scarecrow, Ben Oliver’s tin man and Richard Colvin as the cowardly lion. A Rod, Jane and Freddy of (over the) Rainbow.
Meanwhile Zara Ramm is a cackling delight as the unsettling Wicked Witch of the West, giving the young audience the chance to try out their best booing technique.
Zara Ramm as the Wicked Witch of the West. Photos by Mark Carline
While it may not be a full-blown pantomime, there are key moments of audience participation in what one person described to me aptly as an ‘interactive musical’, with the cast clambering in to the stalls creating one particularly memorable moment for young theatregoers.
Elsewhere there are flying houses, screeching monkeys, street-dancing munchkins (ding dong, the witch is dead!), sinister brainwashed citizens of Oz, Toto the dog – played with a certain canine insouciance by ‘Buddy’ at the show I saw, and Winkies (the Wicked Witch’s enslaved subjects) who appear to have stepped straight out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
In fact, all the elements of Oz are there – the production just needs a bit of magic sprinkled over it to tighten and brighten the action which can otherwise feel rather plodding at times.
And tightening the show would not just give it the extra theatrical sparkle it and its talented and hard-working cast deserves but would also carve a useful 10-15 minutes from the overly-long 2 hours 40 minutes running time.