QUEENSLAND entertainer Simon Gallaher is looking forward to the premiere of touring musical The Wizard of Oz – Arena Spectacular at Newcastle Entertainment Centre in April because the city has a special place in his career.
When Gallaher's company, Essgee Entertainment, decided to include a regional centre in its 1994 tour of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical The Pirates of Penzance, he chose Newcastle’s Civic Theatre. He had often performed in concerts at the Civic and was impressed by its elegance. So, after a major restoration of the venue in 1992-93 made it even more inviting for theatregoers, it became his main choice.
The show was, in his words, “a huge success”, and more of the company’s shows had seasons at the theatre: includingThe Mikado, HMS Pinafore, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
The Civic also hosted Essgee’s last major touring production, a reworked The Pirates of Penzance, in 2002.
Now, Gallaher is coming back.
“It’s wonderful to be coming back to Newcastle,” Gallaher says.
And, while the arena-style Newcastle Entertainment Centre at Broadmeadow is very different to the Civic Theatre, he sees it as a performance space that will have watchers on the edge of their seats.
The Wizard of Oz is being staged by Brisbane’s Harvest Rain, a theatre company that has young emerging artists working with professionals in some of the largest productions staged in the world.
In recent years, Harvest Rain has toured annually a show that features a professional principal cast surrounded by an amateur mass junior ensemble of over 500 performers drawn from the area around each venue.
Gallaher, who is playing the title character in The Wizard of Oz, will join other professional cast members in working with the young performers in each area just before the show is staged there.
This is the second time he has played the Wizard of Oz in recent years – but this is a very different wizard.
In 2015 he was the Wizard in a Brisbane production of the musical Wicked that also toured to Perth.
The story of The Wizard of Oz is a theatrical classic. Based on children's book by Frank L Baum, the story tells of Dorothy, a young girl who lives on a Kansas farm, who is blown with her dog by a cyclone into a land called Oz and is told by people she meets to find the mystical Wizard of Oz and ask for his help in getting her home. When Dorothy finally gets to see him, he gives her surprise information.
The Wizard in Wicked heads a very corrupt government, in association with a wicked witch.
Harvest Rain usually premieres its shows in Brisbane, but Novocastrians will see The Wizard of Oz show first this year, with performances on April 26 and 27.
Gallaher, who is 60 years old, notes that he has planned to retire from performing on more than one occasion. But the shows he is offered keep him working on and offstage.
In 2014, for example, he made a return when he was offered a role alongside long-term friend Jon English, who appeared in his Civic shows, in Harvest Rain’s Brisbane production of Spamalot.
English died early in 2016 from problems that arose from an aortic aneurysm operation. Gallaher was among English’s friends who performed in a tribute show at a Sydney theatre.
Gallaher found himself working on two Brisbane shows at the same time in 2015, directing during the day a production of The Pirates of Penzance, and appearing at night, in an adjoining venue, in Wicked.
Gallaher points to the script and the songs of the classic 1939 The Wizard of Oz musical film being used verbatim in this Harvest Rain stage adaptation. “It’s a beautiful musical,” he said. But the movements are often very different, with the 500 young performers playing the story’s Munchkins, poppies, Emerald City citizens, Winkies and Jitterbugs.
The show makes use of contemporary technology, with 9metre tall LED screens wrapping around the entire set and playing wall-to-wall animations that show the nature of the various Oz settings.