It’s a shock to realise that The Wizard of Oz turns 100 next year, its 1903 New York production the first of many stage and screen versions of L. Frank Baum’s book. In all its forms, Baum’s story of plucky Dorothy’s fantasy adventure in the land of Oz is as much a classic as J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan – probably even better known, thanks to video versions of the film.
So a new stage version has to offer something special. In this case it is a well-known and well-loved cast, starting with Australia’s Olympic opening ceremony star Nikki Webster, and including entertainment and stage figures better known to parents, including Bert and Patti Newton, Pamela Rabe, Philip Gould and Doug Parkinson.
The stage show includes musical numbers cut from the film, such as the Jitterbug interlude in the haunted forest. These return The Wizard of Oz to the genre of musical, but they also shift the focus away from the film’s emphasis on Dorothy.
Nikki Webster is a tiny 15-year-old. With her slight figure and appealing little face, her struggle against the forces of evil, in the shape of Miss Gultch and the Wicked Witch of the West, takes on a David and Goliath quality. In a sense this means that her relatively small voice, notably lacking the colour and depth of Judy Garland’s, becomes an asset in emphasising her vulnerability. So Dorothy’s sudden eruptions of anger and courage surprise her adversaries and help win the day, despite Webster’s limited range of expressions and movements.
To be fair, Webster is on stage with some of the best scene-stealers in the business, the show inviting actors such as Bert Newton as the Wizard of Oz and Pamela Rabe as the Wicked Witch, to push the comic possibilities to the limit. And that’s not counting Toto the dog, on stage most of the night and surely the most relaxed canine thespian ever seen, even taking little naps when the action slowed down.
The ensemble of children was equally charming – bright-faced little people who made the merriest bunch of munchkins imaginable, in among the rotating, cut-down adult dolls who were all the devoted acolytes of Glinda the good witch. Patti Newton as Glinda, resplendent in crown and lollipop fairy dress, was goodness itself, fully endorsing Dorothy’s realisation that Aunt Em truly loved her.
One of the delights for everyone is Rabe’s return to the Wicked Witch, having previously played the part in the same Melbourne production as Hayes (which also had Newton and Geappen in their current roles). Rabe’s every appearance lights up the studio with a delicious evil and the show’s funniest lines. “It all feels fresh,” she says. “It’s a part that I just love playing. It feels like coming home.” – SMH Weekend Edition December 1-2 2001
Dorothy’s companions on the yellow brick road, Scarecrow (Derek Metzger), Tinman (Philip Gould) and Cowardly Lion (Doug Parkinson) were also lovable duffers, each one taking inspiration from Dorothy’s determination. The necessary fidelity to the film version must have represented a challenge to director Nancye Hayes, whose brief also incorporated an adaptation of the 1987 Royal Shakespeare Company production. Yet new generations of children are continuing to make up an audience, to whom such constraints are invisible.
In fact it will be the familiarity of this show that will thrill kids, and the flesh and blood of a theatre performance offers a special response of its own. The Wicked Witch’s flame-throwing broomstick and explosions that make her disappear in a puff of smoke were pretty scary, while her melt-down at front centre stage was as hilarious as it was ingenious.
Pamela Rabe certainly deserves special mention. She has some of the best lines in the show, but Rabe employs her wonderful, dry, comic talent to add a welcome glimpse of irony to the fairy story. How can anyone be so mean and cruel, asks Dorothy, to which the gleeful answer is – “Lots and lots of practice!”
I’m sure she would be most adult audience members’ favourite character, but she was also voted best in the show by my companion Louis, 9, although Claudia, 7, voted for Toto, who I suspect will be the sentimental choice of many younger children.
The Wizard of Oz is a big, bright and warming show, a treat for the school holidays, and one of those rare productions that will make parents as happy as their children.
Pamela Rabe is fantastically good as the Wicked Witch who, frankly, ought to be the star of the show anyway. Anyone who thinks pigtails and red sequinned shoes are fashionable should be shot. As the Wicked Witch, Pamela is a symphony in lustrous dark forest green and fashionably chic black. (OK, so the nose could do with some work, but look at Pamela Anderson, for God’s sake: when she arrived in Hollywood she looked like Mr Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street. You’d be surprised at the miracles that can be worked in Tinseltown.) A witch she may be, but she defines fashion in the pre-fiber, post-Nikki fantasyland that is Oz. (Let’s not even talk about Bert Newton. All love and adoration to Dame Patti and The Bert, but he wasn’t all he could be, and was, we felt, a shadow of his infomercialesque TV self.)
Source: smh.com.au | December 7th 2001
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NOVEMBER 2001 – JOHN FROST + PAMELA RABE – AFTER PARTY OF THE WIZARD OF OZ (Photo by Patrick Riviere/Getty Image)