If ever a wiz there was: Ballet Theatre UK’s The Wizard of Oz

Spa Centre, Royal Leamington Spa
November 9, 2023

“Follow the yellow brick road, Follow the yellow brick road… Follow the rainbow over the stream…” That’s precisely what Ballet Theatre UK’s dancers do in Christopher Moore’s family friendly ballet, The Wizard of Oz. That it’s rather closer to the 1939 MGM musical starring Judy Garland, in design and story than L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the first of no less than 14 books Oz books that he penned, just makes it all the more comforting. Sometimes, it’s really nice to just curl up with something familiar.

From its opening folksy dances against a backdrop of Kansas barns and cornfields for Dorothy, her parents and three friends, through the excellent twister scene that sees the family home break apart in front of our eyes, to Dorothy’s adventures in Oz, the story is easy to follow. It always moves on at a fair pace. Best of all, it always does so through the dance. And there is a lot of it.

Ballet Theatre UK’s The Wizard of Oz
Photo Daniel Hope

It is intensely colourful. The illustrations in the original book were lavish for the time but MGM’s use of Technicolor took them to another level, and was one reason Dorothy gets to wear red slippers. In the novel they are silver. Daniel Hope’s designs delight time and again. In Oz, and against a backdrop of the emerald city, dancers in bright yellow pancake tutus and fascinators represent the yellow bricks of the road, while super red dresses help bring a field of poppies to life.

As an aside, in the book, the city is not green at all. It is all just another a facade created by the Wizard, who made the inhabitants and visitors wear green-tinted glasses. Fastened with a lock, their purpose was to make it seem more magical than it actually is.

Miriam Konnerth is a charming, perfect, pig-tailed Dorothy, always sunny and not in the least fazed by meeting a talking Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. As ever, her solos were all beautifully placed.

Each of Dorothy’s three companions are introduced in turn. Characters shine through, especially that of Marco Minnella’s very appealing, perpetually smiling, Scarecrow. He’s certainly full of bounce and the joy of life, even if he hasn’t quite got the hang of scaring pecking, pirouetting crows. Minnella also showed some top notch multiple turns.

Ballet Theatre UK’s The Wizard of Oz
Photo Daniel Hope

Having no heart and being made of metal, the Tin Man is altogether trickier but Paul Meneu. brought him to life nicely. As the Lion, always an audience favourite, Alberto Diano trembled amusingly. He was so cowardly, at first at least, that he probably frightened himself.

The Wicked Witch of the West (Sophie Piper) is slightly Disney cartoon-like but it works in this context. Evil fairies and witches always seem more interesting than good ones (think any Sleeping Beauty, ever) but Glinda (Hannah Pearce) was as serene as you could wish for, bringing calm whenever she appeared.

Moore takes every opportunity that comes along for group dances. Ballet Theatre UK may be a relatively small ensemble but that doesn’t stop them being very pleasing and well-constructed. All brim with energy.

The story does have a bit of a problem balletically in that there is no love interest, however. There’s no obvious reason for a big pas de deux. But he’s not one to let that stop him as he conjures up one for Glinda and the now unmasked Wizard (Michael Maple). It’s elegant and lyrical rather than virtuosic and flashy but works well.

Ballet Theatre UK’s The Wizard of Oz
Photo Daniel Hope

For the music, Moore and arranger Simon Paterson turned largely to nineteenth-century French composer Charles Lecocq, best know for his Parisian operetta and comic operas. There are also contributions from Edvard Grieg and Jules Massenet, while the music for the Poppy Waltz is by Johann Strauss II The excerpts chosen come with all the necessary colour and energy and fit remarkably well. It all fits like a glove. Not once do you find yourself harking back to the screen musical.

Dorothy’s return home is left to our imaginations, but we do see her click her ankles three times before it’s time to leave.

And, on the way out, old and young alike seemed to be smiling. To misquote those famous lyrics, if ever a balletic wiz there was, the Wizard of Oz is one because… well, it’s just so light, entertaining and wonderfully optimistic. And sometimes, that’s precisely what’s needed.

Ballet Theatre UK’s The Wizard of Oz continues on tour.