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Review: The Wizard of Oz at Liverpool Empire ****

Over the last few years, the Empire has moved away from offering its audiences traditional panto experiences and towards big budget theatrical extravaganzas instead.

There was an attempt in 2020 to bring Meatloaf musical Bat Out of Hell to Lime Street, which was stymied by the pandemic. But in 2021, Dream Girls took up residence, and last Christmas was the turn of White Christmas, which at least had a festive theme.

And so to Christmas 2023, and the arrival – kicking off a wider 2024 UK tour – of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams’ musical The Wizard of Oz, this Technicolor production of which started life at Leicester Curve but more recently was seen packing them in at the London Palladium. And which, by luck or design, brings together elements of both worlds (panto and spectacle) in one colourful package.

Production values are high. This is an Oz that looks and sounds great.

The latter comes courtesy of a fantastic, fizzing ensemble who create a rich sound, buoyed by a lively band in the pit.

The former is down to Colin Richmond bold and bright set and Rachael Canning’s costume design, Ben Cracknell’s lighting and the inventive use of Douglas O’Connell’s projections which whisk cast and audience on a whirlwind tour (literally) of Kansas, an eccentric Munchkin land and futuristic Emerald City with minimal set changes or props.

The tornado sequence, taking place between the huge backdrop screen and a scrim that drops down over the front of the set’s illuminated surround (its echoes of Art Deco cinema design presumably a nod to the story’s filmic origins), is ingeniously realised and particularly effective.

Above: Dorothy (Aviva Tulley) arrives in Munchkin Land. Above; Tulley and The Vivienne as the Wicked Witch of the West. Photos by Marc Brenner.

Saying that, I’m not sure if it was down to a glitch of the technical wizardry, or some unrelated issue, but on press night the audience was held outside the Empire’s auditorium until shortly before curtain up – leading to the show starting 15 minutes late.

While Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice supply additional songs, ostensibly for Professor Marvel/the Wizard (Alex Bourne) and the Wicked Witch of the West, the bulk of the show’s numbers are Arlen and Harburg’s delightful 1939 originals.

If Aviva Tulley as Dorothy finds similar inflections to Judy Garland in some of the dialogue (particularly on the Yellow Brick Road, oh my!), elsewhere she carefully steers clear of Garland’s distinctive singing tone, delivering the iconic Over the Rainbow entirely in her own – crowd-pleasing – style.

Incidentally, the eagle eyed might just spot Garland’s face in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment as images swirl in and out of the projection behind the action.

As Dorothy’s companions on the adventure, Benjamin Yates (Scarecrow), Aston Merrygold (Tin Man) and Nic Greenshields (Cowardly Lion) prove a charming, watchable trio, although I’m not convinced by the Tin Man's extended robot dancing sequence which feels out of place among the rest of the ‘if I only had…’ number.

Above: The cast of The Wizard of Oz. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Dorothy’s other companion is Toto, realised in puppet form courtesy of Abigail Matthews who – once you’ve become accustomed the device, proves a discreet presence behind the frisky pet dog’s inquisitive movements and wagging tail.

Wicked has made it almost impossible to see the Wicked Witch of the West as purely evil. Although here, Liverpool’s Ru Paul Drag Race champion The Vivienne clearly enjoys the (broom) ride as Dorothy’s nemesis while giving a performance which renders the character an eminently boo-able (pantoesque) baddie, albeit without completely terrifying younger audience members.

There are menacing moments – the Wicked Witch’s chanting guards and flying monkeys, the booming disembodied demands of the Wizard come to mind – but they’re outweighed by the whimsical and cheery in what is a bright, buoyant and imaginatively staged slice of storytelling.

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