Book: William F. Brown
Music & lyrics: Charlie Smalls
Director: Matthew Xia
This year the Christmas offering from the Hope Mill Theatre is an updated retelling of The Wiz – the renowned Motown musical based on the classic Wizard of Oz tale, originally staged on Broadway in 1975, winning Best Musical at the Tony’s. Most will remember the 1978 film adaption starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as The Scarecrow, but perhaps the most modern restaging was NBC’s ‘The Wiz Live!’ broadcast in 2015.
This production (the first UK staging of the show in 10 years) directed by Matthew Xia, brings all the colour and swag of the original, but is further injected with a social grounding that sets this version much closer to home. Still opening in “Kansas”, Simon Kenny’s monochromatic landscape pays homage to the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie, yet simultaneously invigorates the tale using miniature 3D tower block set pieces that help us recognise Dorothy’s inner-city London home. This provides a refreshing and contextual update, that sees the traditional story rooted in a modern UK setting, allowing a more current social backdrop to envelope the story.
We are quickly whisked ‘over the rainbow’ via dashing projections and impressive AV from George Reeve, that light up the walls of the intimate space, married with Leah Hill’s colourful and vivacious choreography that transports us to the world of Oz, but not as we know it.
Now in a world of rainbow graffiti, the first of Dorothy’s companions that we meet is the Scarecrow, who is wheeled through the back of the theatre on a shopping trolley, enthusiastically played by Tarik Frimpong who relishes in his elastic physicality. We then meet the soulful Tinman, complete with gorgeous vocals from Llewyn Graham, who is nuanced and consistent throughout, followed by a deliciously extravagant and flamboyant Lion, played with vibrance and gusto by Jonathan Andre. At the helm, navigating us through the story with ease, Cherelle Williams is a warm and winsome Dorothy, whose vocals pack a powerful punch, particularly in her heart-warming rendition of ‘Be A Lion’ with Andre.
Act Two showcases the company’s multi-faceted ensemble more so than act one through Hill’s caricature choreography. ‘No Bad News’ was the production’s stand-out number for this reviewer, fronted by Ashh Blackwood’s comedic and dynamically deviant Evillene, symbolising an all-singing, all dancing corporate diva-villain, complete with marigolds.
In comparison to The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz seems to give more weight to its score and less to character and plot development, perhaps relying on audience members already being familiar with the original tale.
Matthew Xia’s direction makes use of the space and presents us with a feast of colourful characters. A lot of the action is played out to the audience in an almost pantomime manner which risks detracting from the sincerity and depth the plot offers, but adds to the intimate Christmas night out feel in an almost cabaret-style. Hill’s choreography is uplifting and energetic and the finale number has the audience on their feet with little encouragement needed from the company.
This is a colourful production, giving a zesty and updated portrayal of a classic tale and is well worth a watch this Christmas!
Runs until: 15th Jan 2022