March 3 (Bloomberg) -- Monsters fly into the auditorium, the yellow-brick road tilts and turns over multiple hydraulic revolves and a tornado spins Dorothy’s shack about like a leaf in a gale. If ever there was a show that screams “money,” it’s “The Wizard of Oz.”
That’s cash well spent. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new production (designer Robert Jones) at the Palladium Theatre in London hits every emotional button and then some. The first-night audience, including Michael Caine and David Frost, cheered it royally.
Lloyd Webber has added a few songs to the ones already made famous by the 1939 MGM movie. He creates a forlorn dust-bowl atmosphere with a plucking banjo sound for the opening ensemble “Nobody Understands Me.” There’s a gleeful waltz, “Red Shoes Blues,” for the Witch, and a couple of effective numbers for Michael Crawford as the Wizard/Professor Marvel.
If they’re unlikely to rival the show’s original hits in their longevity, they still do the job nicely. A few snatches of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” add a note of fun to some of the Witch’s scenes.
The mythic, ambiguous power of the story -- Is it a fairy story? A political metaphor? A religious parable? -- transfers beautifully to the stage in Jeremy Sams’s fast-paced staging. He never forgets that it’s ultimately about a little girl who longs for home. Toto is played by possibly the cutest dog ever to tread the boards, adding an “aah” factor.
It says a lot that Toto still doesn’t manage to upstage Dorothy (Danielle Hope), who has a sweet, sparky manner, a great voice and a healthy dose of star quality. Hope won the role in a talent contest on BBC television called “Over the Rainbow.”
To read some grumbling groaners on the issue, you’d think Lloyd Webber had started televising animal mutilations for fun: all that free advertising for his show, all those poor wannabe Dorothies, publicly rejected.
Hey, that’s showbiz. All power to him, I say.
The supporting cast is excellent too, with Crawford in fine form and Hannah Waddingham cackling up a storm as an evil and gleeful witch.
Amazing sets, superb performances and hit songs... No need to go over the rainbow. It’s as good as it gets right here.
Elvis and Friends
The same can’t be said for the Broadway show “Million Dollar Quartet,” which has opened in the West End.
It’s loosely based on an afternoon in 1956, when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins met in the Memphis recording studio of Sun Records. That event provides a cue here for some famous numbers including “Hound Dog” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
As with many compilation musicals, the problem isn’t the musical material, it’s the dialogue. This is a mix of clunky expository narration (dished out by Sun Records’ owner Sam Phillips, played by Bill Ward), shoed-in flashback material, and knowing winks at the future. “I’ve just signed a little-known singer called Roy Orbison,” says Phillips. Groan.
On a simple set that recreates the look of a 1950s studio, the cast delivers the numbers live. They’re fine, though they don’t reach any heights of greatness. It’s only at the end, when the dialogue is over and they perform a straight medley of hits, that their energy levels begin to rise.
That’s a shame, because after 90 minutes it’s also when you begin to feel you’ve had enough.
A few dollars short of a million, I’d say.
“The Wizard of Oz” is at the London Palladium. Information: http://www.wizardofozthemusical.com or +44-844-412-2957.
“Million Dollar Quartet” is at the Noel Coward Theatre. Information: http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk or +44-844-482-5141.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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