‘The Wizard of Oz: Arena Spectacular’ was adventurous.
With nine-metre high LED screens, over 900 cast members, and a stage the size of three basketball courts, Harvest Rain Theatre Company’s latest arena spectacular, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was colossal, to say the least. Presented at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre, which supported the elaborate size of the show, Harvest Rain has made some bold choices and striking changes to the original much-loved story by L. Frank Baum.
Following the journey of a whiny ‘Kansian’ girl named Dorothy, audiences joined her on an adventure flying through a tornado, over a rainbow, and along a yellow brick road, where she met and aggravated mythical creatures along her way. The script needs little introduction, but audiences should note that many a detour is made in this rendition, and comparisons to the Judy Garland film are few and far between.
Harvest Rain has steered the show away from the conventional fairytale feel and moved toward a commercial and theatrical extravaganza. These arena shows could be called the McDonalds of theatre – with mass production, intensive marketing, and enough capital to take risks. Sure, some of the ingredients might be a little questionable, but every child and slightly intoxicated adult loves it. And they keep coming back for more.
One of the biggest risks taken was in the costuming designs. While Dorothy and her family, the Wizard and Ozians maintained their expected attire, all other characters were given an original spin. Tinman was most notable, with a 90s meets SteamPunk vibe, Lion donned some blinged up pimp attire, and the Scarecrow was slick in a dark blue suit. The two witches were also given their own flare, with large messy wigs and highly decorated dresses, styled like Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange, and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. While there were some elaborate and clever costumes throughout the mix, there could have been a little more unity across the board.
‘The Wizard of Oz: Arena Spectacular’ shone with technical components, such as lighting and video animations, that were beyond impressive. The digitally constructed and animated backdrops, designed by Craig Wilkinson were outstanding and unique to this production. In many ways, even non-theatre lovers would have been able to sit and enjoy the animated film playing behind the performers. It was beautifully crafted and consistently alive – an experience in its own right and nothing like Oz has seen before. Trudy Dalgleish, who designed the lights, used several moving heads in a strategic circular rhythm that paid homage to the Hollywood origins of the story’s popularity and helped create the arena atmosphere intended. Also, cleverly placed lights brought the single large set-piece to life by projecting yellow bricks during pivotal moments, and vibrant colours to reflect scene changes.
That being said, LED screens provided the only change to the set, aside from some clever lighting techniques, and at times it made the show feel like a performance in front of a film; the likes of which are common for the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’. In addition, the connections between the audience and leads could have benefited from utilising live cameras and projecting closeups of the performers onto these LEDs to give viewers a better sightline of their expressions and emotions being portrayed. Nonetheless, some have described the aesthetic as rock-concert-like, and in that the stagnant set and elaborate technology succeeded.
With such a big space and so little set, it was natural for Director Tim O’Connor, and his cast, to gravitate toward the large yellow brick road staging in the centre. While there were missed opportunities for the leading cast to connect with the audience and utilise the outskirts of the space more, the scenes with fewer actors were still well blocked. All considered, audiences don’t attend an arena show so much for the emotional connection to the performers’ storytelling as they do for the visual spectacle, and on that O’Connor delivers again and again.
In collaboration with Choreographer and Mass Director Callum Mansfield, this skilful team has turned the traditional story into a colourful and bold experience. The choreography of the mass dance ensemble was simple but effective and showcased the up and coming talent Brisbane has to offer.
Carly Bettinson as Dorothy, Chris Geoghegan as Scarecrow, Michael Nunn as Tinman and Josh Whitten as Lion gave convincing performances in their roles. Nunn, in particular, was a standout with the platform to showcase his strong dance-ability in his introductory scene, and the stage presence to fill the arena as he journeyed along with the others.
Matty Johnston was also strong in his role as Uncle Henry, Emerald City Guard and Winkie General. Showcasing his versatility and ability to work the stage. Even in a minor role he was able to leave an impact and helped prod the show along. John Wood as The Wizard remained true to the original, however, at times he made errors in his lines and wasn’t particularly strong at covering it up.
Moving away from the traditional nasal and hunchbacked Wicked Witch and the airy and angelic Glinda the Good Witch, Bil Heit and Aurelie Roque in their respective roles instead opted for a shared sassy and holier than thou vibe. The shift away from witches of polar opposite personalities was new to many in the audience, and the change in accents even more daring. Roque gave Glinda a Welsh gone New Jersey accent, whilst Heit opted for more of a Brooklyn tone for the Wicked Witch.
But no review about an arena spectacular version of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ would be complete without reflecting upon the mass ensemble. Hundreds of children, teenagers, students, and performers exploded onto the stage in several show-stopping numbers. From sneaky, troll-like Munchkins to fabulous Ozians and spooky Jitterbugs, there were audible gasps as the characters kept coming and coming… and coming. They pushed themselves hard, and as a unit, they were visually stunning. In particular, the poppy scene was really beautiful, with snow machines and flowing petals all around. Every individual young person worked like a clog in the machine and created one united and elegant mass creation.
In a clever, brave and fine example of the talent at Harvest Rain Theatre Company and their training facility, ‘The Wizard of Oz: Arena Spectacular’ was a local success. Everyone in Brisbane was connected to someone performing in this show, and every performer did their friends and family proud. Above all else, effort and passion for theatre triumphed.
‘The Wizard of Oz: Arena Spectacular’ wrapped up in Brisbane on Saturday, 13 July 2019, but continues its Australian tour until October 2020 – with shows in Adelaide, Sydney, Canberra, and Perth. For more information on performance dates visit www.wizardofozarena.com.