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The Wizard of Oz (Susan Elkin reviews)

The Wizard of Oz
(Chichester Festival Youth Theatre) By L. Frank Baum. Music and Lyrics of the MGM motion picture score by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Background Music by Herbert Stothart.Adapted by John Kane from
society/company: Chichester Festival Theatre
performance date: 18 Dec 2019
venue: Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester, West Sussex PO19 6AP

Richard Chapman, Joe Clines, Alfie Scott, Ellie Dickens, Ella OKeeffe in CFYT’s The Wizard of Oz. Photo: Helen Murray

It has long been my contention that Chichester Festival Youth Theatre is one of the best youth theatres in the country and this glitteringly good show simply confirms my view. An eighty-year-old classic, directed by Lucy Betts, it surpasses even CFYT’s usual high standards.

A word, first, about how it all works: CFYT works with 800 young people across three counties. At Christmas the main house is turned over to the youth theatre who present the venue’s Christmas show for a two-week run – a wonderfully enlightened approach. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, second best about this and CFT affords the show exactly the same top notch production values that would be used for any other show. Result? The best stage version of The Wizard of Oz I have ever seen.

This version uses the music and lyrics of the MGM motion picture score by Harold Arlen and EY Hamburg so we’re only ten minutes in before Ella O’Keefe (she alternates at other performances with Polly Maltby) is raising the roof with Somewhere Over the Rainbow and after a few bars we’re hooked and have forgotten all about Judy Garland.

The advantage of a huge youth cast is that you can make the chorus numbers numerically spectacular and there are some very impressive group scenes in this show. The Jitterbug (I’d forgotten what a long sequence it is and what energy it needs) in particular is a colourful, foot-tapping showstopper and the Winkies’ menacing march is terrific too – a rhythmic ear worm.

The three farmhands (Joe Clines, Alfie Scott and Richard Chapman on press night) who become Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion work pack plenty of personality. They sing well and work together expertly. Three tuneful, truthful performances.

There are no weak links in this cast. Every single participant is full on in a quasi-professonal way. Perhaps, in a mainstream production, the casting director would have cast people who look a bit older in some roles but it doesn’t matter in the least.

Simon Higlett’s set and James Whiteside’s lighting design uses a huge arched rainbow behind and over the thrust – somewhere over the rainbow in every sense. It changes colour to connote, for example the arrival in Oz or the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle. Sometimes it is reflected against the shiny surface of the playing area to create the illusion of a full circle and it looks wonderful. Also, utterly delightful, are Ryan Dawson Laight’s magnificent costumes, made by a team of eleven costume makers rather than hired in. No one who sees this show will forget the poppies.

Then, hidden from view, there’s an excellent seven piece band, led by Colin Billing who also wrote the orchestrations for this show. The sound is arresting.

It’s always a challenge to re-create something which almost every man, woman and child knows intimately from what is probably the most watched film of all time. In this case I love the nod to the film by which at the point of the storm which blows Dorothy away to Oz, the costumes, assisted by lighting, change from greys and pale blues to bright primary colours. Even Toto (supremely well puppeted by Ellie Dickens on press night) turns from a grey dog into a colourful brown and gold one.

If you want an escapist show to take you right out of yourself then get to Chichester for this. It’s the best seasonal production I’ve seen this year.

CFYT’s The Wizard of Oz. Photo: Helen Murray

First published by Sardines:
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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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