Chichester Youth’s Christmas show is absolutely wizard

Members of Chichester Festival Youth Theatre in The Wizard of Oz. Photo by Helen Murray
Members of Chichester Festival Youth Theatre in The Wizard of Oz. Photo by Helen Murray

For audiences of a certain age, there is only one movie that is compulsory viewing at Christmas.

Judy Garland’s iconic performance in the 1939 musical fantasy, The Wizard of Oz.

Ella O'Keeffe (Dorothy), Alfie Scott (Scarecrow), Joe Clines (Tin Woodsman) and Richard Chapman (Cowardly Lion). Photo by Helen Murray

Ella O'Keeffe (Dorothy), Alfie Scott (Scarecrow), Joe Clines (Tin Woodsman) and Richard Chapman (Cowardly Lion). Photo by Helen Murray

So the acclaimed Youth Theatre’s decision to stage it as its festive offering in the main house of the Chichester Festival Theatre was always going to be fraught with risk.

Expectation levels and comparisons with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayor juggernaut were exacting.

And breathe. There is no cause for alarm. This new production is just about as faithful to the original film as it is possible to be.

All the great numbers are included – We’re Off To See the Wizard, Follow The Yellow Brick Road, If I Only Had A Heart, Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead, and of course the song with which Garland will always be inexorably linked, Over The Rainbow.

Ella O'Keeffe as Dorothy and Ellie Dickens as Toto. Photo by Helen Murray

Ella O'Keeffe as Dorothy and Ellie Dickens as Toto. Photo by Helen Murray

Beautiful staging also moves the action from sepia in the opening scenes in Kansas where Dorothy lives with her dog Toto to the magnificent rainbow Technicolor Land of Oz to where she is swept by a tornado.

Here she encounters good and wicked witches as well as a scarecrow, tin man, and lion in their collective search for the help of the wizard who lives in the Emerald City.

This is a lavish production and vast in scale. Stunning costumes, terrific dance routines, and the full movie script – even the cut song The Jitterbug.

But, of course, the show belongs to the young cast where the lead roles alternate depending on the night you attend.

Florence Clarke as the Wicked Witch of the West. Photo by Helen Murray

Florence Clarke as the Wicked Witch of the West. Photo by Helen Murray

On press night, Ella O’Keeffe dazzles nearly as radiantly as her magical ruby shoes as Dorothy. It’s a tough gig, especially when the script demands you sing Over The Rainbow solo and in the spotlight so early in the production.

But Ella is not merely word-perfect and polished, she fairly shimmers in one of the most important roles in Hollywood history.

There are no duff performances.

How we loved Richard Chapman as the Cowardly Lion seeking the gift of bravery from the Wizard (Luc Oratis); Alfie Scott as the Scarecrow in need of brains and Joe Clines as the Tin Woodsman urgently requiring a heart.

Members of Chichester Festival Youth Theatre as the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. Photo by Helen Murray

Members of Chichester Festival Youth Theatre as the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. Photo by Helen Murray

Each of them effortlessly epitomises the characters they represent, with cheerful panache and wonderful, natural humour. They are a collective joy.

Give a big hand too to Florence Clarke, the Wicked Witch of the West – a part she consumes in one sinister gulp.

This is a huge team effort. No-one lets the side down.

Not least, the most lovable Toto the puppet dog who is given life by Ellie Dickens.

True, the play could have lost the scenes that MGM decided to cut. Less can be more.

However, for traditionalists, this signalled that the festive season had begun – and that the Youth Theatre simply gets better and better. Absolutely wizard!