A twister is sucking us into its vortex, sending us skywards. The spectacular visuals in The Wizard of Oz, the West End megamusical co-produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber, can certainly generate excitement. The tornado – about to carry off Danielle Hope's unhappy Dorothy – spins over Kansas's dark plains like a sinuous ghost.
Snaking across the distant horizon, it suddenly whips towards the audience and we're in the eye of the storm. Uprooted, spindle-shanked windmills whirl across the Palladium's proscenium, projected on scrim. Through the gauze, you see the shack in which Dorothy is sheltering gyrate and take off too, courtesy of invisible hydraulics. Only after zooming into outer space, like some clapboard Starship Enterprise, does itcome to rest in Munchkinland, by which time I'm giddy.
All this wizardry is slickly directed by Jeremy Sams. Robert Jones's sets are outstanding, from his lonesome farmstead to the psychedelia of Dorothy's dreamland. There the yellow brick road is a ring of light revolving around tropical flowers, and the Emerald City a metropolis of Art Deco skyscapers, sheering into the stratosphere at Expressionist angles.
Hope is likeable and assured. The winner of Lloyd Webber's televised talent contest, she sings "Over the Rainbow" with a lovely mellifluousness, though she might yet find more intense yearning. Michael Crawford is perfectly affable as the Wizard, once he's revealed as as old gent, and Edward Baker-Duly's robotic Tin Man has droll flashes of suave machismo (as if distantly related to Buzz Lightyear). But David Ganly's Lion is a weak link, not helped by feeble gags.
None of the new songs is storming either, written by Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, reunited after 34 years. The Wizard and Hannah Waddingham's Wicked Witch both have thumping numbers when in mean mode, with orchestrations aping Berlin cabaret, and marching bands (not to mention a chunk lifted from Mussorgsky). Neither is genuinely scary.
Some might say this production would be better if it only had a heart. Personally, I felt let down by the lack of sharp ideas. Sams gestures towards a political reading, but only makes the Wicked Witch's henchmen a vague mishmash of Nazi stormtroopers and Cossacks. So, after inducing an initial high, the lavish staging feels increasingly vacuous. The show is a hit already anyway, with advance sales surpassing £10m.
Million Dollar Quartet is a comparatively modest jukebox biomusical, really a sketchily dramatised gig featuring rock'n'roll hits like "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Hound Dog". It's set in a shabby recording studio in 1956, based on the jamming session when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins hooked up for one night, together with Sun Records' talent-fostering Sam Phillips. Everyone's musically accomplished, but only Ben Goddard's unruly Lewis is rip-roaring, playing the piano with wild brio: splayed legs jiggling, hands slamming chords, thumb scoring glissandos.
Finally, I headed off to Wilton's, the East End of London's beautifully dilapidated music hall. This was to catch the first revival in 400 years of one of the masques created by the writer-designer duo Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones: Love Freed from Ignorance and Folly (1611). The Jonson 'n' Jones entertainments, performed for James I's court at Whitehall, were the first megamusicals. They mixed drama with song and dance and, being splendiferous, cost buckets.
I would love to see a recreation of Jones's sets, which have gone down in theatre history as feats of engineering, sliding screens revealing vista after vista: huge turning worlds and chariots gliding through the heavens. Maybe one day, if Shakespeare's Globe reconstructs an indoor Jacobean theatre, as planned. In the meantime, Love Freed proved little more than a pared-down titbit, the coda to a one-off, fund-raising Jacobean banquet orchestrated by the young troupe Jericho. The banquet was a jovial feast with endless meat dishes, roast fowl and rabbit. And Jonson might, in fact, have appreciated the post-prandial, bare-boards staging (just one trap door and period costumes). He railed about Jones's grandiose mechanics and insisted his poetic dialogue provided philosophical profundities, "nourishing and sound meats".
Notwithstanding, here Jonson's royalty-flattering allegory is pared down and interrupted by swishing dance interludes (performed by Royal Ballet members), by melancholy solos (sung by Dame Emma Kirkby), and by Prospero's speech from The Tempest – also 1611 – regarding insubstantial pageants (recited by Janet Suzman). Consequently the arcane scenario – wherein Cupid solves a Sphinx's riddle by gazing on the Sun God and seeing the light – is incomprehensible. Freed from ignorance? Nope, none the wiser. Charmed, all the same.
'The Wizard of Oz' (0844 412 2957) booking to 17 Sep; 'Million Dollar Quartet' (0844 482 5141) to 1 Oct
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