The Wizard of Oz

7th to 21st December 2019

L Frank Baum | Sutton Arts Theatre | Directed by Emily Armstrong and Dexter Whitehead

Sutton Coldfield may be a long way from Kansas but this year’s heart-warming and brilliantly performed Christmas production of The Wizard of Oz at Sutton Arts Theatre proves there really is no place like home.

The story of Dorothy’s wonderfully strange journey to Oz is a firm family favourite. Thanks in large part to the 1939 MGM film starring Judy Garland (based on L Frank Baum’s 1900 novel) it continues to be discovered by new generations. A pleasure then to see so many young people in the cast of this cleverly staged, courageous festive treat which is full of heart.

A yellow brick road at the entrance kick starts the magic as soon as you enter this gem of a local theatre. Directed by Emily Armstrong and Dexter Whitehead (who also stars as the lion), this is a traditional interpretation with some technological trickery thrown in to transport audiences over the rainbow to Munchkinland and the Emerald City. The twister, an impressive film sequence which incorporates footage of actors from the cast (including Liz Plumpton’s wonderfully wicked Witch of the West on a broom), works brilliantly alongside various other projections to bring both Kansas and Oz to life on stage.

Under Gladstone Wilson’s musical direction, the excellent band bring great energy to Herbert Stothart’s original score. The Wizard of Oz contains some of the most memorable music in cinema history and this production boasts both the vocal and instrumental talent to make these much-loved songs soar. The main cast are supported by a host of young singers and dancers in impressive junior and senior ensembles.

Neatly turned out in a gingham dress and ruby slippers, Phebe Jackson is a perfect Dorothy. She makes the iconic role her own, nodding to Judy Garland’s performance but never impersonating. In a flawless accent and beautiful singing voice, she captures Dorothy’s kindness and has a charming rapport with the rest of the cast, including a very well-behaved Toto. There’s a particularly strong connection between her and a loose-limbed Scarecrow played with brilliant physicality by Robbie Newton.

Joining the quest to the Emerald City, Paul Atkins brings charm and a moving gentleness to the role of the Tin Man in search of a heart and Dexter Whitehead shakes and sobs magnificently as the cowardly lion short on courage. Once the merry band of travellers are together, there’s magical chemistry between them all as they make their way to the wonderful wizard.

Nicely flustered when his true identity is revealed, Paul Westcott is an avuncular Wizard of Oz. The reactions of Scarecrow when he receives his Doctor of Thinkology diploma, Lion when he is awarded his medal and membership of the Legion of Courage and Tin Man when he is presented with a testimonial in consideration of his kindness are perfectly judged. It’s a moment of moving stage magic.

There’s excellent support from the rest of the cast: Sarah Riches as Glinda, Pete Dent as Uncle Henry, Alison Odell as Aunt Em and Tom Cooper as a guard with great comic timing. Another production which proves that this is an amateur company at the top of their game.

The Wizard of Oz is playing at Sutton Arts Theatre from 7th to 21st December 2019.