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The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz

Arlen, Harburg, Lloyd Webber, Rice

Michael Harrison, Gavin Kalin Productions, David Mirvish, Crossroads Live, Nick Thomas, Rupert Gavin & Mallory Factor, Jake Hine, Playing Field

Liverpool Empire,

December 13–January 7; 2 hrs

(also Hull, Sheffield, Llandudno, Bradford, Newcastle, Manchester, Sunderland in 2024)

The cast of the touring production of The Wizard of Oz, now at the Liverpool Empire
The cast of the touring production of The Wizard of Oz, now at the Liverpool Empire

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There’s something about The Wizard of Oz on stage that just works. Having seen Wicked in Salford and Liverpool and an amazing production of The Wiz at Hope Mill back in 2021, here we are with the original story and songs, back in something that reminds us much more of the MGM movie and the amazing Harold Arlen songs we all know and love.

With so many mega-successful Oz shows in competition, this one certainly holds its own, and largely on its own terms. There’s an abundance of projections and a feel that is, at times, quite cinematic. But this is no 1930s revival. For this third iteration of direct adaptations of the film, Rice and Lloyd Webber have lent their Midas touch with a few extra songs for good measure.

Liverpool queued round the block to see Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK scouse winner The Vivienne as the Wicked Witch, and we were stunned by Aston Merrygold as the Tin Man. One stand-out moment was If I Only Had a Heart with a dance break for – you guessed it – a de-rusting breakdance. A better Tin Man is unimaginable (and I’ve seen a few), which is bad news for the rest of the run, as Merrygold is only booked for Liverpool. Still, I’d certainly pay to see Gary Wilmot as the Wizard (due in Llandudno and Bradford next March), or Jason Manford as the Lion in Manchester (April-May). Craig Revel Horwood takes over as the Wicked Witch in some of the more southerly venues, but I can’t imagine he’d have got the reception in Liverpool that we gave The Viv.

Big celebs aside (and with the occasional close-up projection, the Viv really is made big, to capitalise on the drag aesthetic), the rest of the cast excels. The standing ovation last night was reserved for Aviva Tulley as Dorothy, who stunned with Over the Rainbow and the rest. In some cases the old ones really are the best. Puppeteer Abigail Matthews was inspiring as Toto, who usually saves the day while everyone else is busy singing; her movements and storytelling are captivating.

There’s also something chaotically nostalgic but truly modern about the whole production. There are pastoral farmland scenes of Kansas, framed within 1950s neon arches. The yellow brick road lights up like a Nintendo video game. Old melodies are subtly, or sometimes drastically, reorchestrated and reharmonised, which makes for a very interesting musical palette.

Somehow, though we know the songs by heart and every nuance of the story, it feels fresh. Visual inspiration may have been taken from Wicked at times, particularly the entry into Oz, but then there’s as much from Bob Fosse and the kind of surreal 1960s formation dancing that champions oddness. Emily Bull as a perfect Glinda appears like Penelope Pitstop, or maybe Barbie, on a pink moped. The Munchkins have grown up and modernised, but they remain in the 1950s, while the Winkies, or Oz army, are reminiscent of a kind of Squid Game aesthetic, of a futuristic dystopian authoritarian state.

The flying monkeys are pretty retro, but scary when they turn up. I swear I saw a picture of Judy in one of the city projections, and the Lion tells us he’s a proud friend of Dorothy – how to bring up to date and pay homage to a really big bit of cultural history...

It’s a timeless tale, told in a hotch-potch of time periods, with brilliant music, a great aesthetic and an incredible diverse cast. Perhaps it shouldn’t work, but it does.

An absolute must for anyone who loves Oz.

Info and tickets here


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