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Theatre Review: The Wizard of Oz

The old caution to never work with children or animals wasn’t heeded by Blackpool and Fylde Light Opera Company in their latest musical production, which opened to a near full house at the Grand Theatre last night and has another five showings before the week is out.

Like the rest of the production of The Wizard of Oz, the decision was a bold and ambitious one but also one that paid off. The cast of children who played munchkins, and teenage ensemble dancers – both brilliantly choreographed by Danielle Woodhouse – provided some of the most energetic and exciting scenes of the night, while Ernie Bradley – the six month old shih-tzu who played the role of Toto – was the undisputed star of the show.

The patient guiding hand directing this cast of potentially unruly performers is Sophie Coulon, who has honed her skills as co-director of CouCou performing arts school which produces annual children’s productions. But on the night greatest of patience was displayed by Ernie who endured long stints being held and passed around, the confusion of his real-life owner (Catherine Bradley, playing the Wicked Witch of the West) being out to get him, and even a cyclone. The audience enjoyed every second with this goodest of boys – almost to the point of distraction.

There were a few other distractions on opening night too – mostly due to technical issues – but the cast displayed brilliant professionalism, going on with the show and managing to get the audience, who clearly enjoyed the mishaps, back on track.

Helming the adult cast was Amy Dee Campbell, a recent graduate of performing arts, who struck the delicate balance of stage presence and youthfulness in the role of Dorothy Gale – synonymous with Judy Garland’s 1939 performance. This musical adaptation by the Royal Shakespeare Company was first performed in the West End in 1987 and is perhaps the most faithful adaptation of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer screenplay. As such, Campbell plays a Garland-like Dorothy and does the role – and the songs – great justice.

Dorothy’s trio of companions, too, stick closely to the film’s interpretation of the scarecrow, tin man and lion and are well cast accordingly. Jack Price’s physical comedy skills perfect for the scarecrow, George Plant’s tap dancing and otherwise mechanical movements making for a convincing tin man, and Richie Reed’s rich baritone suited to his mane part.

The Wizard of Oz is a massive production in comparison with BFLOC’s last outing in Little Shop of Horrors, which was a much more contained production, and as such the level of performance skill was more varied, but this felt like a true community production in which everyone was given their moment on stage and this was heartening to witness.

BFLOC’s ambition to produce professional-level shows was apparent in the staging – with an impressive set and immaculate costuming by Joseph Booth, both of which raised the bar and made for a visual feast. Special effects were implemented by local magician Russell Brown (who can usually be found entertaining customers in his House of Secrets magic bar) and were exciting to see from the audience. A fly system was well utilised as both the Wicked Witch of the West and good witch Glinda (Amy Prendergast) descended on the stage from on high with natural poise while a flying monkey also made energetic use of harness. Also elevating this production was an impressive full live orchestra led by musical director George Baldwin.

There are many moving parts to this huge production and it’s a remarkable thing for a community theatre company to pull off – although hardly surprising that it has, considering the huge wealth of talent within BFLOC and their proven track record as Blackpool’s longest-established amateur dramatics society. Bringing them all together in their performance space on the opening night was undoubtedly a challenge but with five more shows ahead of them the company will no doubt hit its stride down the yellow brick road for this clever and courageous family production that is, ultimately, full of heart.

The Wizard of Oz is at Blackpool Grand Theatre until Saturday with evening performances daily and matinees on both Friday and Saturday. Click here to book.

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    Antonia Charlesworth Stack is a journalist and editor from Blackpool. She was deputy editor of Big Issue North magazine and is editor of Blackpool Social Club. Antonia is also the founder of Reclaim Blackpool, a women's safety campaign that began life as an article she wrote for Blackpool Social Club. She's a contributing author to the Lancashire Stories anthology with her story about a Blackpool performer, The Call of The Sea. The book is available for free in libraries across the county.

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