The Wizard of Oz, Market Drayton Festival Centre - review and pictures
If the main moral of The Wizard of Oz is to believe in ourselves and our own capacity to overcome challenges, the young people who gave such a spirited performance of the show at the Festival Centre demonstrated it with knobs on.
In a story full of incident, members of the Am Dram’s Junior Theatre Workshop gave us strongly-drawn characters, fine singing, and expressive dancing brimming with confidence and ambition. And naturally enough in a production of this scale and length, they were put to the test more than once.
Perhaps the most dramatic unplanned challenge faced Grace Blurton, playing Dorothy, in her very first song. How brave, I thought, to sing Over the Rainbow with no accompaniment. Only at the interval did I learn that a technical glitch had denied her the recorded backing she was expecting. Exposed and alone on stage in front of a packed house, she sang beautifully.
“Dorothy is very kind and confident but she has to work out for herself what she needs,” Grace told me. I felt that she, if not Dorothy, had learned a valuable lesson before taking a step down the yellow brick road.
This was a production of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1987 adaptation of the 1939 MGM movie starring Judy Garland which in turn was inspired by a 1903 Broadway show based on the 1900 novel by L Frank Baum. So it has a long pedigree and is well known. Yet these youngsters, with support from adult members of the society behind the scenes, gave a strong sense of making it their own.
The curtain opens on the muted colours of the farm where Dorothy lives, with the Kansas prairie projected onto a large backing screen. We briefly meet the main characters in her life, who are transformed – and their key traits exemplified – when the tornado strikes and Dorothy is carried to the Land of Oz.
Here all is vivid technicolour and we meet the chorus for the first time as gloriously costumed and shock-wigged Munchkins. There’s a rousing round of Ding-Dong The Witch is Dead and a lively contribution from the Lollipop Guild in their striped outfits; we cringe in fear or enjoy hissing, depending on our age, at the first appearance of the Wicked Witch of the West, hammed-up with relish by Valeria Paslar (who never goes anywhere without a puff of coloured smoke); and Dorothy inherits the ruby slippers and sets off for the Emerald City to an energetically marched Follow the Yellow Brick Road.
Scarecrow (Evan Bradbury), Tinman (Elwood Glover) and Lion (Leah Frost) join Dorothy in turn, in search of brains, a heart, and courage respectively. There’s plenty of physical humour played out in these scenes, mixed with the pathos of my favourite series of songs – If I Only Had a Brain, If I Only Had a Heart, and If I Only Had the Nerve, interspersed with a vigorous “We’re Off to See the Wizard.”
Act Two opens at the doors of the Emerald City and leads us via the Wizard’s Chamber, the Witch’s Castle and the Haunted Forest to the ultimate ‘liquidation’ of the Wicked Witch, the realisation of personal ambitions, and Dorothy’s return home to Kansas. Here the (invisible) hand of the adults is most obviously in evidence. Grand painted backdrops sweep into place, special effects multiply, and rapid-fire costume changes are effected as if wizardry is truly at work.
I have to say how much I enjoyed the extended Jitterbug number, which was cut from the MGM movie and which I had never seen before. And finally, I must credit the dog Penny who played Toto with remarkable patience and tolerance, and a winning air of curiosity. Her occasional superior attitude to stage directions was entirely forgivable. Penny was so comfortable with Dorothy, it was a surprise to discover they were not a pair off-stage. The dog was volunteered for the role by Jeremy Blandford of the lighting crew.
For many of the youngsters, this was their first production on a public stage. As members of the Junior Theatre Workshop they meet each fortnight at the Festival Centre to develop their skills in the performing arts while building confidence and having fun. At a time when music and drama are ever more squeezed in the school curriculum it’s admirable that this opportunity is available in our community. Hats off to members of the Market Drayton Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society who work regularly with these young people and have supported them in making this full-length show such a success.
The show was produced and directed by Becky Turner and Lorraine Jones, with choreography by Rosie Parrington.
Details about the Junior Theatre Workshop, which is open to new members, are available from the Festival Centre.
By John Hargreaves