Theatre review: The Wizard of Oz, The National Theatre

A loving adaptation of an old favourite.

In some ways you can’t go wrong with a screen to stage adaptation – audiences know what they’re going to get and are already predisposed to enjoy it. And so it’s no wonder that, for producers and audiences alike, such shows abound. In recent years alone we’ve had Billy Elliot, King Kong, Cruel Intentions, Hairspray and The Full Monty. Disney seems to be factoring it into its business model, with Frozen the Musical concluding its Australian tour in 2022 and Mary Poppins currently showing in Adelaide. 

But what’s to be lost in this journey from the big screen to stage? Not too much, one hopes, at least in terms of audience numbers. Going into the current theatrical production of The Wizard of Oz, I can’t say I was expecting much. Like many before and after me, I loved the 1939 film starring Judy Garland and the images and characters from the film loom large in my childhood nostalgia. 

So, it was with surprise that, from the second Lyla Digrazia as Dorothy came onto the enormous proscenium arch stage of the National Theatre in St Kilda, with Toto in tow – played by real dog Scamp, in very nearly a scene-stealing performance – she was not shirking from the big ruby slippers (or red glittery lace-up boots in this version) she had to fill. Digrazia has a gorgeous voice, and it was clear the direction of the play was holding faithful to the original film imagery – Dorothy in gingham dress with bow and Judy-esque accent. 

The show then follows a familiar (yellow brick) road: Toto is forcibly taken away by the nasty Miss Gulch on her bicycle – she has plans to put him down as punishment for biting her leg. Dorothy is beside herself, Toto escapes, and Dorothy runs away with him to protect him. She encounters Professor Marvel, a deceptive but kindly travelling showman, who ‘looks into his crystal ball’ and sees Dorothy’s Aunt Em is unwell. Distraught, Dorothy heads home, straight into the path of a violent storm and, lo and behold, she finds herself in technicolour Munchkin Land, here rendered by large movable floral columns, colourful stage lighting and a large ensemble cast decked out in royal blue costumes. 

She meets Glinda the Good Witch of the North, dressed in glittery blue jumpsuit, diaphanous cape and silver jewelled crown. Glinda is played by Isobel Smart, who also plays Aunt Em, but for some reason she speaks with an Australian accent. After Dorothy finds herself the new owner of the Wicked Witch of the East’s recently vacated Ruby slippers (boots), Glinda sends Dorothy off on her journey to follow the Yellow Brick Road to Oz, to ask the Wizard to send her home. 

Special praise must go to Kael Serin-D’Alterio as the Scarecrow, Ashley Wilsnach as the Tin Man and Leigh Ronconyust as the Cowardly Lion – all leads are excellent, reminiscent (in terms of characterisation) of the performances from the film. Serin-D’Alterio’s impressive physicality as the Scarecrow is a highlight – the role requiring a talented physical actor to portray the lack of skeletal structure of a scarecrow recently de-poled. His gentle characterisation also helps build that all-important relationship with Dorothy – leading to her ‘I’ll miss you most of all, Scarecrow’ moment. 

The Wizard of Oz is the second show by Theatrical that I’ve seen in recent times, the previous being Billie Joe Armstrong’s American Idiot at Chapel off Chapel – a much smaller performance space and a significantly less complex play to stage. And it has to be said that the ‘amateur’ status of the group (much like the show being based on one of the most famous films of all time) tempers expectations. This is not a Broadway production, and consequently it would be wrong, churlish even, to expect each and every performer, or each element of the complex production – from lighting and sound (with live orchestra), choreography, costume and set design, and the technical execution of the sound mixing of the large cast and set changes – to be top level.

But for what it does, Theatrical certainly does it well, and there is much to be enjoyed – from the performances of the leads, as well as Keyanna Burgher’s committed and cackling turn as the Wicked Witch, to the many and varied imaginative costumes and the thoughtful use of lighting states, ensemble cast, and large and small props that carry us from Kansas to Oz, from Munchkin Land to the Enchanted Forest to the Emerald City and home again. 

Beyond a conscious steampunk aesthetic (involving brown leather and lace-up accents to a lot of the otherwise film-faithful costumes and some ensemble cast members who pop up every now and again wearing flight goggles) and a reference the Cowardly Lion makes to The Lion King, this stage version (the 1987 Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation) remains true to the 1939 film, itself an adaptation of the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum.

Depending on where you stand, this could be seen as a missed trick. Perhaps the most cult classic reworking of the material was The Wiz, the 1978 film starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, which updated the original film for a contemporary US audience (the cast is all-Black, Dorothy is a Harlem schoolteacher, the Wicked Witch runs a sweatshop in New York). What that may have looked like in a contemporary Australian context is anyone’s guess and is clearly not in the remit here. 

This is family-friendly school holiday fare and hopefully kids attending won’t listen too closely to the rather outdated moral of the story – when Glinda asks Dorothy what she’s learned and she replies she won’t again look beyond her home, because everything she has is there. That’s right kids, stay in Kansas. Look where dreaming gets you. 

For me, I find the moments after the curtain falls one of the most reliable indicators of how a show has been for those in attendance. I don’t mean the applause, although that is obviously a barometer (and one which on this occasion suggested a good time was had by all). I mean as you’re leaving the theatre and walking away. From the elderly through to babes-in-arms, what particularly took my attention were the small children in attendance, the excitement still in their faces despite the well-past-their-probable-bedtime (it’s a three-hour show), and the breathless ‘My favourite was the witch!’ and ‘I loved the Scarecrow!’ tumbling out of them.  

Read: Theatre review: The Snow, State Theatre of WA

This underscored that, however many times we may feel we have seen a story, or how jaded we are, stories like The Wizard of Oz are retold and restaged because they have inherent power to entertain, and bring joy and wonder, as this version certainly does. 

The Wizard of Oz, presented by Theatrical and Andrew Gyopar 
National Theatre

Director: Kim Anderson
Musical Director: Bronte Regos Thiele
Choreographer: Kat Wallace
Assistant Director: Karen Shnider
Production Assistant: Burnie Dariol
Production Assistant: Liz Park
Executive Producer: Andrew Gyopar

Cast: Lyla Digrazia, Kael Serin-D’Alterio, Ashley Wilsnach, Leigh Roncon, Keyanna Burgher, Isobel Smart, Jason Fabbri, Warren Overton, Alession Russo
Ensemble cast: Louie Dalzell, DJ Pearce, Charli Curtis, Caitlin Carnaby, Tayla Harry, Alyssa Sorgiovanni, Eve Dresner, Emma Gates, Emma Ho, Melissa Honarvar, Alyssia Jade, Mathilda Kwok, Charlie Mackenzie, Matteo Maxwell, Tabitha Truscott, Damon Willis, Mareesa Ballao, Aneka Constantine, Caitlin Greenhill, Charbel Karaan, Lyndsay Kirkham, Rebekah Maisano, Matthew Sheahan, Jaynen Yong

The Wizard of Oz will be performed until 9 July 2023.

Kate Mulqueen is an actor, writer, musician and theatre-maker based in Naarm (Melbourne). Instagram: @picklingspirits Facebook: @katemulq Twitter: @katemulqueen