First Night: The Wizard Of Oz, London Palladium

Dorothy delivers but a four-legged star steals Lloyd Webber's show

Reviewed,Paul Taylor
Wednesday 02 March 2011 01:00

With more than 9,000 young hopefuls aspiring to land the leading role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's intermittently exhilarating new production of The Wizard Of Oz, it's clear that you don't need to be a sworn friend of Judy Garland to be a friend of Dorothy.

What it means, in that sense, to be one of her chums is alluded to in the moment when David Ganly's Cowardly Lion – an adorably incongruous mix of Bronx "I-coulda-been a contender" tough-guy accent and the camp manner of a scaredy-cat wuss – responds to the Wizard's disembodied interrogation in Oz with the declaration: "I am proud to be a friend of Dorothy."

Otherwise, it is only Hannah Waddingham's magnificent Wicked Witch of the West (oddly like a demonically destructive, cackling version of Bette Midler) who is liable to fly over the heads of the kids, issuing ultimatums through the megaphone attached to the end of her broomstick.

The aims of the production are to create a stage version that truly rivals, in theatrical terms, the much-loved 1939 movie; to fill in the dramatic gaps left by the great Arlen/Harburg score with numbers specially written by Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, here collaborating with Lloyd Webber for the first time on a West End show since Evita in 1978, and to make a star of Danielle Hope who was the public's choice for Dorothy on television's Over The Rainbow.

It is more successful at some of these ambitions than others. Jeremy Sams's production is a marvel of beguiling narrative fluency and, with Robert Jones's superb designs, of endlessly witty and spectacular visual invention – from the digitally-enhanced hurricane transition to Oz to the skeletally twisted Gothic palace of the Wicked Witch and her totalitarian, helmeted guards.

Lloyd Webber's handful of new numbers include an amusingly baleful and thumping military waltz à la Prokofiev for the Witch and for Michael Crawford, who is genuinely charming in a clutch of roles, a nattily rhymed catalogue song from Professor Marvel about the wonders of the world, replete with slideshow and a somewhat pre-emptive moral that home is best.

You can't fault the proficiency of Hope's performance or her clear, serviceable singing. But while there is appeal in the way she shows how Dorothy's game and generous spirit always overcomes her nerves, Hope is never going to break your heart, as Garland does with the ache of her yearning to escape from and then get back to Kansas. Her rendition of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" sounds a shade too studied as opposed to vulnerable and spontaneous.

I found myself touched by the endlessly endearing Westmoreland terrier (one of four rotating in the role) who didn't put a paw wrong as Toto. With a quartet of canines here and eight in Legally Blonde, one wonders whether they all go off together for a post-show bowl of water at some Soho kennel and bitch about what a dog's life it is to be a four-legged star in the West End.

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