The Wizard of Oz, Bristol Hippodrome

AFTER singing Climb Every Mountain at a band call in the Circle Bar of Bristol Hippodrome, a friend of mine fixed a steely eye on the conductor and brass section of the orchestra and said, “Listen gentleman, the audience will have paid their money to hear me sing this number, not hear you play it”. It’s a remark that could well be aimed at sound designer Adam Fisher, and whoever was in charge of delivering it, this splendid production of one of the most popular children’s stories ever written.

Following the lines of the L Frank Baum story as seen in the much-loved 1939 MGM film, the equally well-loved Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg songs have excellent support from added songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, a fine set of solo and ensemble vocalists to sing them, and MD Jestyn Griffiths’ ten-piece orchestra to match the singers in quality. The only thing that doesn’t match is the balance between singers and musicians, with the latter all too often being, because of the sound delivery, over dominant.

This however does not prevent Aviva Tulley winning many hearts with her spirited Dorothy. All, like Benjamin Yates, Aston Merrygold and Nic Greenshields as the loveable Scarecrow, Tin Man and cowardly Lion, are determined to get Dorothy to the Emerald City, an audience with the Great Wizard of Oz and home to Kansas. En route they are assisted by Emily Bull’s beautiful Glinda, good Witch of the North, who does a neat quick-change act to reappear as Aunt Em. They are impeded by The Vivienne, a delight as the Wicked Witch of the West, she exudes evil in a way that fits ideally into the spirit of the story. If you want to know how to overplay a role without loosing it into caricature, watch this performance. Vivienne also made a good job of portraying the nasty busybody Miss Gulch.

And there was a more than just passable Wonderful, if incompetent, Wizard of Oz from Alex Bourne.

Rather less pleasing, for all the skillful work of puppeteer Abigail Matthews, was a hand-held dog Toto. You can forget the presence of the manipulator with a big animal, but this loveable little hound has to be the real thing. For once, a little dog did not turn out to be a scene stealer.

That accolade was left to Douglas O’Connell and his video designs. We were whirled from Kansas, via Munchkinland, along the yellow brick road, through the magic forest to the Emerald City, the Witch’s evil castle, and back to Kansas, all thanks to the imaginative and highly skilled use of video.

Wicked, which recently occupied the Hippodrome for just over a month, may carry more theatrical clout at present, but judging from the squeals of delight from the younger members of the audience, and the contented sighs of the older generation, this more traditional version of L Frank Baum’s tale can and does send an audience soaring Over the Rainbow, with happy delight.


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