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The Wizard of Oz
Music by Harold Arlen, Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg
Additional Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directedy by Jeremy Sams
The Fox Theatre
May 13, 2014

Danielle Wade, Jamie McKnight, Lee MacDougall, Mike Jackson Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann Wizard of Oz Tour

Danielle Wade, Jamie McKnight, Lee MacDougall, Mike Jackson
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann
Wizard of Oz

The real “wizard” behind the curtain of this latest production of  The Wizard of Oz is Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Having produced this show first in London and then in Toronto, casting the lead via a reality talent competition both times, Lloyd Webber has put his own stamp on the time-honored classic, re-teaming with lyricist Tim Rice to write additional songs for the show and assembling an excellent design team to create a unique look for the production.  The current US Tour of the production, starring most of the Toronto cast, has now arrived at the Fox Theatre, and while the overall production isn’t quite as grand as it was in London, it still provides for a tuneful, colorful and entertaining evening of theatre suitable for all ages.

 The story here is familiar to basically everyone, having been taken mostly from the classic MGM film. Dorothy Gale (Danielle Wade) and her dog Toto (an adorable Cairn terrier named Nigel) are whisked away by a cyclone to the magical land of Oz, where Dorothy, advised by Glinda the Good Witch of the North (Robin Evan Willis), heads off on a journey to the Emerald City to meet the Wizard (Jay Brazeau) in the hope that he will be able to help her get back to her home in Kansas.  Along the way, she meets the Scarecrow (Jamie McKnight), the Tin Man (Mike Jackson) and the Cowardly Lion (Lee MacDougall), all the while being antagonized by the vengeful Wicked Witch of the West (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan), who is determined to capture Dorothy in order to obtain the precious Ruby Slippers, with which Dorothy has been entrusted.  It’s a classic tale of friendship, bravery and the importance of home, and all those familiar elements are here, with a few mostly stylistic elements from L. Frank Baum’s original book (such as the Munchkins all dressed in blue) thrown in for good measure.

I was fortunate enough to have been able to see the original London production of this show three years ago, and I found it spectacularly staged and extremely well-cast.  This production has obviously been scaled down for touring, and for the most part, it still looks good, with colorful sets and costumes by Robert Jones, and strong choreography by Arlene Phillips. It’s probably not fair to compare too much, and most of the people seeing this show will not have seen it in London, but I can’t help but wish this version still had some of the scale of the original.  Where the scaling down shows the most is in the lack of flying effects (the Witches mostly just walk everywhere, and the Monkeys don’t really fly), and in the Munchkinland scene, where the staging comes across as cluttered and cramped.  Also, several of the backdrops have a one dimensional quality, and when Dorothy and friends on the Yellow Brick Road finally see the Emerald City in the distance, it looks a lot like a flat Christmas tree.  Still, even with those issues, the show manages to entertain. The Kansas scenes look great here, and I’m also especially impressed by some of the dancing that I don’t remember from the London show, such as an impressive rhythmic baton-clicking dance by the Winkies (the Wicked Witch’s minions) near the end of the show.

In terms of the cast, this production does well.  Wade makes an engaging, likable, slightly tomboyish Dorothy, and her voice is strong on the iconic “Over the Rainbow”. Despite seeming oddly out of breath through much of the first act, Wade displays a strong bond with her three companions and, especially, with Toto. McKnight makes a fine, goofy and forgetful Scarecrow, and Jackson is in great form as a swaggering Tin Man.  MacDougall, as the Lion, is funny delivering his many one-liners, although he seems a little too over-the-top at times. The Witches–Willis as a particularly snarky version of Glinda and Donovan as the menacing Wicked Witch–play well in their antagonistic relationship on stage, and Donovan delivers the new “Red Shoes Blues” with gusto.  As Professor Marvel (in Kansas) and the Wizard, Brazeau is charming and sympathetic, if not a particularly powerful singer.  The ensemble here is strong as well, especially in the dancing.

For the most part, I would say that this incarnation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Wizard of Oz is a crowd-pleasing success. While not quite as spectacular as the earlier London production, this version still has many strengths and is an excellent show for families. It’s not exactly like the film, and visually it looks very different, but the story is essentially the same.  The poignant and familiar finale (with a slight twist) is especially well-done here, leaving the audience with a sense of wonder and hope.

Danielle Wade, Mike Jackson,Jamie McKnight Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann The Wizard of Oz

Danielle Wade, Mike Jackson,Jamie McKnight
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann
The Wizard of Oz

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I just got back from a 10-day trip to the UK, where I was able to soak up the sights and sounds of the thriving London theatre scene, as well as taking in a touring show in Stoke-On-Trent.  I also got to re-acquaint myself with the lovely scenery of the valleys of South Wales.  The highlight, however, was definitely London, which (with all due respect to New York) is my favorite theatre city on Earth.  It has much of the variety and thriving theatre scene of New York in (to my mind) a much more friendly and accessible atmosphere.  I love New York as well, and I would love to get back there someday and have a real Broadway trip, but London will always hold a special place in my heart.  Here are some mini-reviews of the five shows I saw:

The Sound of Music (UK tour), Regent Theatre, Stoke-On-Trent, England

This is a production I had seen before, first at the London Palladium and later in Cardiff, Wales, both starring Connie Fisher as Maria.  I am a big fan of Connie’s, and I really thought she brought something new to the role of Maria, but this time the show’s Maria was played by UK soap actress and West End veteran Verity Rushworth, who I thought played the role extremely well.  Rushworth has a clear, pretty voice and, acting-wise, made for an energetic, almost athletic Maria, and her scenes with the children were a highlight.  There was also excellent supporting work by Jacinta Mulcahy as Baroness Schraeder and Martin Callaghan as Max.  The weak link, however, was Jason Donovan as Captain Von Trapp, who lacked the stage presence and sense of authority that is required for the role, and the production as a whole seemed to have less energy then it had when I saw it before.   Still, it was an enjoyable production overall, and the sets (especially the mountain in the opening and closing scenes) were much improved from the last time I saw the tour.

Ordinary Days–Trafalgar Studios, London

This show (music and lyrics by Adam Gwon, directed by Adam Lenson) was a very small musical with a cast of four, telling the inter-twining stories of four young New Yorkers.  Daniel Boys and Julie Atherton played a young couple going through troubles in defining their relationship, while she dealt with issues from her past, and Alexia Khadime and Lee William-Davis played two very different people who were brought together in friendship by chance.  It was a very well-done show, almost entirely sung-through, with a very clever set (one large white structure with movable pieces that the actors would move around as needed), and universally appealing performances.  Although the entire cast was excellent, Alexia Khadime was the standout for me, with the energy she brought to her character and her powerful voice.  It was also fun to be seeing the show in such a small venue with the cast being so close-up.

End of the Rainbow—Trafalgar Studios, London

This play (written by Peter Quilter and directed by Terry Johnson) is more of an experience than just a show.  It tells the story of Judy Garland’s last time in London, when she was doing a series of concerts at a night club a few months before she died, and works as kind of a concert-within-a-play, with a full band backing Tracie Bennett as Garland in the concert scenes.  Bennett gives what can only be described as a tour-de-force performance.  She doesn’t just play Judy Garland—it’s like she becomes her, and it is such an emotional, physically and vocally demanding role that I really don’t know how she manages to keep coming back and delivering this performance night after night.  It is a truly remarkable feat of acting, and it was an honor to be able to witness it.  Bennett is ably supported by Hilton McRae as Garland’s pianist, Anthony, and by Stephen Hagen as her fiancé, Mickey Deans, and the costumes and sets really add to the late 60’s atmosphere of the piece.  It’s a wonderful, intense theatrical experience, and although the whole cast is wonderful, Bennett’s performance alone is more than worth the price of admission.  If you live in London or plan on going in the next month, I highly recommend seeing this show.  It truly is a must-see.

The Last Five Years—Tabard Theatre, London

This production of Jason Robert Brown’s musical, directed by Drew Baker, starred Lauren Samuels (from BBC TV’s “Over the Rainbow”) and Christopher Pym as a couple recounting their failed relationship, going backwards in time from her perspective and forward in time from his.  It is a very intimate piece of theatre, and was executed very well.  Samuels in particular was outstanding, displaying a convincing American accent and offering a sympathetic portrayal of a frustrated actress in a confusing but exciting relationship.  She also possesses an extremely powerful singing voice that was very well used in this production.  Pym, as her novelist husband, was excellent as well, but I had trouble sympathizing with his character, who just seemed full-of-himself from the start.  The set was simple but effective, and I’ve long been a fan of Jason Robert Brown’s music.  Overall, it was a moving depiction of the building and unraveling of a relationship, with good chemistry between the two leads even though they only actually interact with each other in one scene, in the middle of the show when their timelines come together.

The Wizard of Oz–London Palladium

This is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new stage version of the classic film, with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg and additional songs by Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, adapted by Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams and directed by Sams.  It stars Danielle Hope as Dorothy, who won the part in the BBC talent show “Over the Rainbow”, and veteran stage and screen star Michael Crawford (the original Phantom of the Opera) as the Wizard.

I’m not sure I can be entirely objective reviewing this particular show, since I watched “Over the Rainbow” online and started a fan forum for Danielle (www.daniellehopeforum.com) that she has since endorsed as her fan club.  Still, I like to think I’m an honest fan, and no matter how much I like a performer, am willing to admit when they give a less-than-stellar performance.  Fortunately, I don’t have to do that this time, since Danielle is truly a delightful Dorothy.  Her performance is very unlike Judy Garland’s in the 1939 film, but thoroughly winning all the same.  Her Dorothy is gutsy, at turns shy and feisty, and even has bits of the whiny teenager at the beginning.  Her story is one of growth, and her rendition of “Over the Rainbow”, occuring very early in the first act, is plaintive and sincere.  Her Dorothy seems a bit distrustful and pessimistic at first, but by the end of the show she is brimming with optimism.  It is a unique take on the character, and for me it really works.  The highlights of the performance for me were her reprise of “Over the Rainbow” in Act Two and the scene where she says goodbye to the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion.  In fact, all four actors were impressive in this last scene, and the chemistry between them was delightful and moving.

The other real stand-out in this cast is Hannah Waddingham as the Wicked Witch of the West.  She presents a very fresh take on the character, imbuing her with a sense of gleeful, evil energy, and her new number in the second act, “Red Shoes Blues” is a showstopper.  She is nearly matched by Emily Tierney as a somewhat mischievous Glinda, the Good Witch, and their scenes together are a real comic highlight.  Edward Baker-Duly makes a great macho, deadpan Tin Man, and Paul Keating is a charming, seemingly boneless Scarecrow.  David Ganly as the Lion is given some groaner jokes, but he delivers them well, and the whole trio has excellent chemistry with Danielle’s Dorothy.  There’s also a cute Westie terrier (there are four used in rotation) as Toto.

Michael Crawford also gives a convincing performance as the Wizard, although he isn’t given a lot to do beyond his first act number “Wonders of the World”, which is a nice, melodic addition to the show.  I did think that his Act One closing song “Bring Me the Broomstick” sounded like a rejected song from Phantom of the Opera, though, and it featured Crawford in full-on Phantom voice.  I especially liked his reprise of “Off to See the Wizard” in the second act–it was very touchingly done.  I could see all the weariness and regret in his character, and found it moving.

As for the other aspects of the production, I found the sets and costumes by Robert Jones to be nothing short of spectacular.  There’s a set piece in the second act (the Witch’s Tower) that just sort of unfurls itself onstage, and it was one of the first times in a show where I actually wanted to applaud the set.  There are also some very clever tricks with flying from both of the witches, and the tornado scene is very effectively portrayed, as well.  The costume and set designs also deviate from the film somewhat drastically, and I really liked that, because this comes off as its own new theatrical presentation and not a carbon-copy of the film. I also really liked the orchestrations of the music, which blended themes from both the old and new songs together seamlessly.

This show is by no means high art, but it is a very enjoyable, extremely well-crafted and well-performed show that will surely delight audiences of all ages, and if ALW wishes to, he can use that as a pull-quote on the posters!   I had a great time seeing this show, and I’m sure it will run at the Palladium for a very long time.

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So, for many years many people have told me “Michelle, you should start a blog”, because I like to write, and I guess people think I’m good at it.  I also love theatre, both musical and non-musical, and I’ve always thought it would be fun to write a blog about the shows I see, as well as my general thoughts about theatre.  Well, at long last, here it is!

Just by way of explanation, here are some things you should know:

1. “Snoop” comes from a name I have used on various message boards for many years.  The “Snoop” part does not come from the rapper (Snoop Dogg), but from Snoopy, the Peanuts comic strip dog, because I’ve loved Snoopy for as long as I can remember.  It has gotten to the point where several of my online friends just call me “Snoop” instead of my real name, so I figured I should carry it over to this blog, because it’s fun.

2. As the blog title says, I do not claim to be an expert in theatre.  The closest thing to formal training I have is four years of drama class in high school, and one playwriting class in college.  I have a smattering of experience in various areas of amateur theatre, but mostly I’m just an avid fan.  I love to see plays, and I love to read, talk and write about plays and performers.

3.  The opinions expressed in this blog are my own, based on my years of being a major theatre geek.  The level of my geekdom has waxed and waned over the years, but it’s in full swing right now and I’m excited to finally get this blog going so I can have an outlet for my thoughts.

4. I will try to write reviews of all the shows I see, whether in St. Louis or elsewhere.  I will also be sharing my opinions on various theatre-related topics, and maybe a few other random things as well–but mostly having to do with theatre in some way.

5. My interests run the gamut from high-brow to low-brow to everything in between.  From Shakespeare and Sondheim to Andrew Lloyd Webber to original shows thrown together by a bunch of college students (see A Very Potter Musical, below).  I do not like everything (Cats and High School Musical, this means you), but I like things of all levels, both well-known and obscure, and I always love discovering new shows and performers.

6. I will share links to videos of performances I like.  I have lots of favorite performers and shows, and I will post my favorite videos as the whim strikes me.  Like now (hints of blog entries to come!)

There.  I think that’s it.  So, this is my blog, for better or worse.  Whoever reads it, I hope you enjoy!

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