The Wizard of Oz at Brighton Dome - review

The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

‘The Wizard of Oz’ by Ballet Theatre UK at Brighton Dome.

Music: Charles Lecocq (Fr), arranged by Simon Paterson with two own items. Choreography: Christopher Moore (BTUK Founder/Artistic Director) & Gwénaëlle Poline Santos (BTUK Rehearsal Director/Ballet Mistress). Costumes: Daniel Hope.

Saturday evening – Dorothy: Emily Boswall (Cambs). Scarecrow: Ewan Hambleton (Edinburgh). Tin Man: Rhys Thomas (Leeds). Lion: Jake Davies (Leeds). Glinda: Anna Yliaho (Helsinki, Fin). Wicked Witch of the West: Ester Cameron (Bucks). Wizard: Oliver Cooper (Sussex).

It ought to be a good boss who listens to his office staff. For three years they had been on at Christopher Moore, the boss himself told me, about The Wizard of Oz being a good subject for a classical ballet comedy. Eventually, convinced of its potential success, he decided to give it a go. In six months he and his management had added it to his Leicestershire-based company’s list of self-created shows.

The office instinct was correct. It has sold out a great many of its debut performances around Britain since October. But come the festive season and its distractions, would it still pull in its lifeblood – the British family audience? The answer was yes. But did it uplift and satisfy them? Everyone left the theatre smiling with its irrepressible music still happily playing beyond the final curtain calls.

So many people know the 1939 MGM Wizard of Oz film which probably since the 1960s has been on TV each Christmas. But would folk venture out instead to see a live ballet version then? The folk of Brighton’s ‘city of dance’ did, with the full matinees proof of the family pudding, bursting with children. In forerunning Christmases at their Dome they have seen Ballet Theatre UK’s own creations, The Snow Queen and A Christmas Carol, as well as its take on The Nutcracker, and for fizzing feel-good factor, the ‘Wizard of Oz’ trumped all three.

For a young, provincial home-grown career springboard company and school for new young dancers, the challenge was another risk bravely taken, deftly accomplished with shots of panache, and cheeringly rewarded. Ballet Theatre UK has grown to 22 dancers this year – its 10th anniversary – enabling a longer tour, dancers rotating on economical and direct choreography, and all resulting in further national reach.

The greatest test and risk, though, was to find their own alternative music which would ensure the production’s survival beyond its first year. The formidable MGM score with its several timeless songs, was a daunting opponent, explained Moore. Commissioning their own was economically out of the question, and songs would not fit a classical ballet.

Simon Paterson compiled appropriate slices of music by Parisian operetta and comic opera composer Charles Lecocq (1832 – 1918), Offenbach’s celebrated successor of the 1870s and 80s, but since outgunned by his Carmen-man contemporary, George Bizet. For a fantasy scenario set on the American prairies, Paterson’s selection it has a light but continuing vigour, brassiness, and added brashness, with bags of percussion excitement and colour, enough to sound American without any Coplandish cliches.

This Paterson assemblage, supplemented by a little music of his own, notably for the raging tornado scene, propels the show at a constant lively lick. The scenario adds a final grand pas de deux between the benevolent Glenda and the unmasked harmless Wizard prankster she is publicly forgiving.

Formulaic? Fair comment, in ballet terms, but it nevertheless satisfies an unspoken need in the audience and underlines a moral in the story. And for it, Paterson finds some blazing Lecocq pages featuring all the horns which, with sudden unprecedented emotion, caps a tale of jolly skirmishes between the good and bad, in luck and intent.

Did we miss the songs? It would be unfair to demand them when ballet, being voiceless, concentrates the heart and mind on the essential, the significant and the symbolic. Dance and music combine to create a wordless songbook of their own, and here that songbook was exuberant and celebratory.

Remember the ‘Theatre’ in this company’s title. Again this year, their offer brought consistent spectacle, with Ryan Phillips an experienced lighting and technical helmsman providing many high spots and touches – especially in depicting the Kansas farmland dust, the deadly twister weather onslaught and the mechanical Wizard contrivance itself. Daniel Hope’s classy costumes again provide his distinctive interest, and choreographers Moore and Santos had, for once, no less than four principal dance characters to get their creative teeth into.

The dance corps of 10 comprises Irish girls, Spanish, American, Finnish, French, Icelandic, Japanese and Swedish. Heathfield-born, Hamburg-trained Oliver Cooper, the Wizard trickster, had his moment of ennoblement out of disgrace with the sweetly admonishing Anna Yliaho as Glenda in a grand pas de deux majoring on some arresting lifts.

Emily Boswall remained unceasingly vivacious and love-spreading as Dorothy while Ewan Hambleton, a product of Scottish Ballet, revelled in creating the role of the Scarecrow – freed from his stake in the farm field with a lifetime’s fun-making and heroism to make up.

Brighton will look forward to Ballet Theatre UK’s deserved return next Christmas.

Richard Amey

The Wizard of Oz continues on tour until February, then later in 2020 comes their new production of Jane Austen’s Sense And Sensibility.