There are a few big secrets in musical theatre. One of the biggest is that aside from one overwrought and over-covered number there’s not a lot of great music in The Wizard of Oz. It’s not the only retelling of L. Frank Baum’s original story, so why is it considered a classic when The Wiz remains unknown to many?
Unknown despite having more songs, better music and a lot more heart?
Why have there only ever been three professional UK productions of The Wiz on stage? Why has it never made it to the West End, whilst a lordly revival of the Judy Garland movie was deemed worthy of a primetime TV show?
Important questions. I will leave the answers to others except to say there was something incredibly powerful about taking a seat in the Hope Mill Theatre in front of a sparse stage and a television showing images of the Black Lives Matter protests.
We all know the story. Daydreaming, dungaree-donned Dorothy (Cherelle Williams) is transported via a terrifying tornado to the land of Oz. Director Matthew Xia has made a small change to the original plot though. Our heroine is not lifted from Kansas, like in the original, or from Harlem, like in the 1978 movie, but from a Grenfell-style tower block in urban UK where Aunt Em (Bree Smith) hangs out the washing on an airer. If I have a criticism – and I really only have a couple – it’s that this contemporary reimagining is only cursorily dealt with and never returned to. That’s a shame because it feels brave and promising.
That’s soon forgotten though because, as soon as the drab setting is literally pulled away to reveal the colourful graffiti of Oz, the audience is transported to somewhere totally magical. The munchkins, clad in neon and high viz, and the good witch Addaperle (Anelisa Lamola) send Dorothy on her quest to meet The Wiz and get back home.
Dorothy eases on down the yellow brick road, armed with the late wicked witch’s silver kicks. Despite being one of this young actor’s first roles, Williams really does ease as Dorothy. A true acting and singing talent in the making.
Of course, it’s less about the destination and more about the journey. And the characters Dorothy encounters on the way. The show really comes alive with these burgeoning friendships. Tarik Frimpong delivers a showstopping, movement masterclass as Scarecrow – you totally believe his elastic limbs have never held his body up. That performance is soon matched by the infectious rhythm of Llewellyn Graham’s Tinman and Jonathan Andre as the loveable lion who thinks he lacks courage.
After an incredible run of numbers it’s perhaps understandable the energy dips slightly towards the interval. However, an inspired voguing routine to welcome the crew to the Emerald City (choreographed fantastically by Leah Hill) is a real highlight.
Anyone disappointed there isn’t a Hope Mill Theatre panto to enjoy will be delighted with Ashh Blackwood’s fabulous villain turn as Evillene. The second half also features a superb ensemble carnival number to celebrate the melting of the wicked witch, Bree Smith’s Beyonce-inspired return as Glinda and a subtext-loaded performance from Cameron Bernard Jones as the preacher Wiz. Sadly though, the second half is less than the sum of its parts and doesn’t manage to deliver the same magic as the first.
The Wiz is intensely political. Both in its existence and its themes. However, when Williams brings the house down with her closing number, the audience are left thinking more about the riot of soul and colour they’ve just enjoyed. A show that deserves to be much better known. Hopefully this brilliant production will help.
The Wiz continues at Hope Mill until 16th January 2022 https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/the-wiz
Reviewer: Peter Ruddick
Reviewed: 28th November 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★