proudly presented by Harvest Rain Theatre Company and Channel 9
reviewed October 12, 2019
Established over three decades ago as a community drama group in downtown Brisbane, Harvest Rain Theatre Company has now become Australia's largest not-for-profit youth arts organisation and producer of live entertainment, regularly presenting professional quality cabaret shows, concerts, musicals, and arena spectaculars, whilst simultaneously providing professional training to young people who have a strong passion for performing and the arts, to pursue their passion and find the courage to dream big and always seek to achieve their dreams. In recent times, this mission has seen Harvest Rain provide opportunities for thousands of young performers to perform alongside professionals, in the mass ensemble of arena spectaculars such as Cats (2014), Hairspray(2016) and most recently, Grease (2017/18), to which Harvest Rain have received much critical acclaim. Continuing in this tradition, 2019 /20 sees them embark on a journey along the Yellow Brick Road to tour another spectacular arena production around Australia, on this occasion mounting Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's 1987 stage production of The Wizard of Oz, originally mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Recently, this reviewer was most privileged to be able to attend the Adelaide leg of this tour, and under the careful and precise direction of producer, director and CEO of Harvest Rain, Tim O'Connor, it lives up to its spectacular name, in a show that is just as wonderful as the Wizard himself. It is one that would make Judy Garland herself proud, and it comes as no surprise that Harvest has received much critical acclaim.
Harvest Rain's production uses state-of-the-art technology to create a refreshing interpretation of the famous 1939 film. Photo: Glenn Pokorny. Source: Supplied
The Wizard of Oz stage production is the John Kane adaptation of Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf's famous classic 1939 film of the same name, originally starring Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, and a film which is, in itself, an adaption of L. Frank Baum's 1900 children's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and one which is widely regarded as one of the greatest films in cinema history. In the unlikely case that one might be uninitiated with the storyline, it follows the fantastical journey of young and innocent Kansas farm girl Dorothy Gale, who finds herself in the magical land of Oz after having been swept away by a tornado, preceded by her feelings of isolation and loneliness at home, as her family struggles to understand her. Whilst in Oz, Dorothy encounters a myriad of magical, colourful and interesting characters, including miniature people, cowardly lions, walking and talking scarecrows and tin men, and witches which are both overconfident and evil. However, while Oz is quite the magical place, Dorothy soon realises that she wears the coveted magical ruby slippers of the late Wicked Witch of the East, and as such, has made an awful enemy of this witch's sister, the Wicked Witch of West. This selfish Witch knows discovers that the slippers won't come off as long as Dorothy is alive, and as such seeks to destroy Dorothy, so that she can obtain the slippers which she claims are rightfully hers to wear. Consequently becoming fearful for her life, Dorothy yearns for home, learning that the only way home is to follow the yellow brick road which will lead her to the all-powerful Wizard of Oz whom is the only one who could lead her back home.
John Wood (LEFT) gives a solid performance as Professor Marvel/Wizard. Also pictured (RIGHT) Carly Bettinson as Dorothy. Photo: Cody Wood. Source: Supplied.
While Wizard of Oz is a century-old story, Harvest's interpretation is modern, refreshing and interesting, and one which perfectly suits the arena setting; it is a true delight to watch, and is a perfect example of how the show was originally intended to be presented. O'Connor's innovative direction sees an exceptional use of space, maximising every possible entrance and exit and every opportunity for actors to deliver dialogue from various locations within the audience, making for an exciting and immersive production. Moreover, the production and design team which has been assembled is most adequate and significantly helps to bring the story to life, in a whole new vision of the much-loved film. This vision culminates in a theatrical extravaganza which uses state-of-the-art technology and wizardry to present a visual feast for the eyes, and a unique re-imagining of the famous film, one which is so easy to fall in love with, making it clear, therefore, that, unlike the featured Tin Man, this reviewer definitely has a heart. Moreover, perhaps the most important part of any production, is the casting, and for this production, the cast which has been assembled, is exceptional.
Josh Whitten gives a solid performance as the cowardly Lion. Photo: Glenn Pokorny. Source:Supplied.
As Hunk/Scarecrow, Hickory/Tinman and Zeke/Lion, Chris Geoghegan, Michael Nunn and Josh Whitten respectively, all deliver fine performances, establishing well the connection between their farmhand character and their Oz character. While Geoghegan's portrayal sees him talking and behaving much like that of a child, complemented with walking like a rag doll to indicate the clumsiness and lighthearted nature of both a farmhand and one made of straw, Michael Nunn uses a slow and gentle tone of voice with a slow pace in dialogue, complemented with a slow walk, to appropriately embody that of a man made of tin who although lacking a heart, is loving and friendly, and lastly, Whitten's physicality and manner of speech helps to establish him as the cowardly farmhand, and later a lion who, on the surface, appears tough, but who is really one who lacks the courage needed to face his enemies.
Aurelie Roque has excellent comic timing as Glinda. Photo: Glenn Pokorny. Source: Supplied.
As Aunt Em/Glinda and Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch of the West, Aurelie Roque and Bil Heit respectively, are well cast, and establish their characters as polar opposites significantly well. While Roque uses both a direct and stern tone of voice and comic timing to portray Glinda as overconfident and patronising, whilst also having humorous, kind, loving and tenderhearted characteristics, Heit starkly contrasts these traits by adequately portraying the Witch selfish, cruel and evil, achieving this through her loud, slow, direct and manipulative tone of voice with appropriate inflection and a loud and terrifying cackle, making one want to run away in fear.
As Professor Marvel/Wizard, John Wood delivers a commendable performance and is well suited to the role. Wood's strong presence and solid physicality, with a calm but strong tone of voice ensures that his portrayal reflects the qualities of a man who, on the surface, may appear selfish and greedy, but is really one who is genuine, charming, tenderhearted, caring, loving and compassionate. This is particularly indicated through Wood's appropriate slow and charming tone of voice when Professor Marvel is concerned for Dorothy and her safety as he learns of her predicament when she unintentionally crosses his path.
Carly Bettinson makes her professional lead role debut as Dorothy Gale. Photo: Cody Wood. Source: Supplied.
Though it is important to cast the preceding roles appropriately, perhaps the most significant role to cast, is that of lead role Dorothy Gale, as it is a must for it to be cast appropriately. On this occasion, this coveted role has been suitably cast, with previous Harvest Rain mass ensemble performer Carly Bettinson, securing the coveted role, in her first professional lead role. Bettinson is sublime and delivers a lovely performance which is delightful to watch, as she conveys significantly well the innocence and beauty of the young, well-mannered, strong-willed and outspoken girl who will never give up in ensuring that her opinions, thoughts and motivations are heard, while stopping at nothing to ensure she is heard. Bettinson also gives a particularly beautiful rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which is a true testament to her professional training in performing arts, having trained at Brisbane Academy of Musical Theatre (BAMT), graduating with a Certificate IV in Musical Theatre, and currently studying her diploma in Musical Theatre, also with BAMT.
Particular mention must also be made to Matty Johnston, in the role of Emerald City Guard. While this is a minor supporting role, Johnston maximises every moment he has on stage with this role, using superb comic timing, confident tone of voice and physicality, complemented with amusing mannerisms, to present the Guard as one who is very confident and silly, and ever so slightly camp, which provides many hilarious moments.
Whilst the preceding actors give fine performances, the most significant performance comes from that of the mass ensemble of 700 young South Australian performers aged from 10-24, many of whom have never performed on stage before, making this a production which is far superior to its predecessors. This ensemble is what makes this production a truly unique and memorable experience, and no Harvest Rain arena spectacular would be complete without it; how mass ensemble manager Marcelle Wallen is able to ensure that the ensemble is always in the correct place at the correct time, and that their entrance and exit is well-coordinated, is most impressive. Kudos also to choreographer and mass director Callum Mansfield who utilises imaginative staging techniques to choreograph simple but precise steps which can be taught to the ensemble in only a few weeks and ones which are entertaining to watch, as the ensemble moves in perfect synchronisation across the entire performance space.
The enormous performance space provides ample space for the 700 young performers to apply Callum Mansfield's imaginative choreography. Photo: Glenn Pokorny. Source: Supplied.
Though the preceding is enough in itself to make this an excellent production, the talented team of designers must not be neglected, as it is these people who can make or break a production, because poor design work results in poor production values, but such is not the case here.
Set design by Fran Hannaway, while simplistic, is functional and most impressive. While previous productions of Wizard of Oz have been known to use large and sometimes cumbersome set pieces, Hannaway's design alleviates the need for such pieces, through her clever design. Such design sees the use of a simplistic static set which features a large purpose-built stage and an elevated winding pathway, upon which clever lighting is employed to indicate the yellow brick road and which feature fake bricks and columns which are painted using different hues of yellow brown and grey, to give an aged feel to the set, as relevant to the beginning and end farmyard scenes. This is complemented by large nine-metre high LED screens situated upstage which feature wall-to-wall animations by Craig Wilkinson and illustrations by Elizabeth Botte, which assist in ensuring changes of scene and location are rapid. Last but certainly not least (most, if anything), a performance space equivalent to the size of three basketball courts provides ample space for the mass ensemble of performers, and perfectly completes the set to make this a production which is, in the words of producer Megan Whiting, "a magic[al] spectacle [much like that of an] Olympics opening ceremony..."
Fran Hannaway and Trudy Dalgleish's set and lighting design is visually arresting and the designs complement each other extremely well. Photo: Glenn Pokorny. Source: Supplied.
Furthermore, this set design is well complemented by innovative and appropriate lighting design by Trudy Dalgleish, which sees several fixed moving heads in varying colours used cleverly to quickly indicate changes in location, and contribute to locations, moods and settings, or to indicate character traits. In particular, as mentioned previously, the clever use of yellow lighting on the pathway to form the "bricks" for the yellow brick road, and the use of several brightly coloured moving lights to indicate Dorothy's arrival in Oz, complemented with static and solid pink and red lighting for the Good Witch and Wicked Witch respectively are used to good effect, to quickly establish clear locations and scenes, while providing a clear contrast between the good and evil inherit within the Witches of Oz.
Bill Heit is appropriately terrifying as the Wicked Witch. Photo: Glenn Pokorny. Source: Supplied.
With regards to costume design, the designs are unique, interesting and innovative, and likely the best Wizard of Oz designs that this reviewer has seen to date (and there has been several). While there are over 3,000 individual costumes and 2,000 wigs featured throughout, there are some designs which particularly stand out. In particular, the costumes in the farmyard scenes which incorporate intentionally dull white and brown hues, are well contrasted with the bright green, pink, blue hues in the Oz scenes, but it is the unique costumes of the Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion which are most visually stunning and show careful and clever design. Specifically, Scarecrow's dark blue suit and trousers, complemented with a brown bucket hat and large amounts of thick pieces of pale yellow wool placed arbitrarily on his costume in lieu of straw, Tinman's distressed silver coloured urban casual wear, complete with a backwards baseball cap, and Lion's pale yellow coloured steel-capped work boots and baggy trousers with fur attached at the bottom, maroon coloured business shirt, pale orange business vest, long and oversized flowing dark orange fur cape with a long and furry tail attached, golden necklaces, and a dark brown long and curly wig which complements the actor's natural beard, ensures that such costumes are ones which make the characters instantly recognisable and effectively reflect character traits whilst contributing to the refreshing nature of this production, being most pleasing to see a change in costume design from the original film and previous stage productions which have preceded this one.
Innovative costume designs which depart from the normal, ensures that the costumes are interesting and unique. Pictured from L to R: Chris Geoghegan, Carly Bettinson, Michael Nunn, Josh Whitten. Photo: Glenn Pokorny: Source: Supplied.
While the story of The Wizard of Oz is over a century old and therefore could be viewed as a dated production, the morals and themes inherent within the storyline are still most relevant today, though today has far more advanced technology than would have existed in the original film. Consequently, in today's world, it is becoming more frequent for people (young people especially), to experience metaphorical witches who seek to take hold of a person and destroy them, in a battle between Good and Evil, as people take a journey of self-discovery, to find out who they really are, and a place to belong where they can be loved for who they are without judgement, a place they can confidently call their home. It is the case that this production is one such way in which thousands of young people can discover who they truly are and escape from their troubles, to be welcomed into a place where all their dreams come true, a place where they can belong and feel accepted for who they are, and loved dearly with an unconditional love, in a place they can confidently call home. One only has to look at the beaming and glowing smile on any member of the mass ensemble to realise that when these young performers are performing in the presence of like-minded friends who accept and love them for who they are, they have found their place to call home, and it's such a joyful place. It is such a thrill to witness the joy that comes from being accepted and finding home, and as such, it can become possible for the audience to also find their home at the theatre, as it is a place where they too can escape their world, even if it just be for a few hours. Therefore, this reviewer excitedly looks forward to Harvest Rain's next production, because if Wizard of Oz is anything to go by, their next production is going to be truly exhilarating and one which will see troubles melt away, as a place to call home is finally discovered, and, well, "there really is no place like home...".
**patrons are advised that this production contains strobe lighting and a terrifying green witch who has the tendency to appear within the audience, without notice**
**Adelaide season has concluded, but next year Dorothy continues her journey along the Yellow Brick Road, stopping at Qudos Bank Arena, NSW on January 25 and AIS Arena, ACT on April 25 . For tickets, click here.
**Harvest Rain's next touring arena spectacular is of the smash-hit Queen musical, We Will Rock You, arriving at Adelaide Entertainment Centre July 16-17, 2020. Applications to audition are now open and can be accessed by clicking here.