Writer: Harvey Fierstein and William F Brown
Director: Kenny Leon and Matthew Diamond
While the National Theatre has announced its programme of online productions will end in July, other streaming sites show no sign of slowing down, and on the eve of the latest Black Lives Matter protest, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Shows Must Go On channel has made The Wiz Live! available for 48-hours. A TV-movie filmed in 2015, Kenny Leon’s production is a full-on, visually ambitious experience.
Bored youngster Dorothy cannot wait to get away from her aunt’s farm but when a freak storm lands her in the mysterious land of Oz, home is the only thing on her mind. Joining forces with a scarecrow, tin man and lion, Dorothy leads her new friends to find the famous Wiz who could grant them everything they desire, but war rages in Oz and for her dreams to come true Dorothy must first perform a crucial task.
Premiering in the 1970s, with a famous movie-version in 1978 starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, there is much to like in Charlie Small’s original music that retains its toe-tapping disco and soul feel. And while the show becomes overly saccharine towards the end, Leon’s production makes the most of its big numbers with some impressive choreography by Fatima Robinson and jaw-dropping design.
Michael Pilipski’s set and Paul Tazewell’s award-winning costumes are a marvel, exuberant, colourful and evocative, emphasising the fantasy element of this story, letting their imaginations run wild as set piece after set piece dazzles on screen. Prepare to be ambushed by their creations as the sultry dancing sirens of the poppy field fill the stage with flowers in vivid pinks and reds, while the tiered stylings of Munchkinland are a citrusy riot of orange and yellow. Robinson’s vogue-base choreography for the Emerald City is pure Ball Room scene, beautifully imagined by Tazewell in futuristic design.
It doesn’t all work and the Everybody Rejoice/A Brand New Day sequence which follows the death of the Wicked Witch of the West (a scenery chewing Mary J. Blige) jars with the stylised nature of the rest, with modern yellow costumes making this seem like an excitable Gap advert. With more than 20 songs across the 1 hour and 50-minutes of The Wiz Live! the plot and sometimes depth are sacrificed to numbers and screen time for each of the famous faces, accelerating the story far too quickly, and taking Dorothy and Co from Yellow Brick Road to witchy assassination all too rapidly.
There are lots of notable cameos from Amber Riley as the Witch of the North, seen recently in London’s Dreamgirls, Queen Latifah as The Wiz and Uzo Aduba as Glinda, but it is the four central performers who do all of the heavy lifting. Ne-Yo is particularly good as the soulful Tin-Man whose robotic moves and silvery teeth are particularly right for his character, while Elijah Kelley gives great voice to the Scarecrow and David Alan Grier is an adorable Cowardly Lion.
The Wiz Live! is cheesy at times but it is nice to see a sassier and more capable interpretation of Dorothy in Shanice Williams. Leon’s production loses momentum in the final 15-minutes with a series of sentimental numbers that fall flat after the pizazz of the earlier sections, but it is the visual confidence of the production that will stay with you and Aunty Em’s message about deserving your home.
Available here until 14 June 2020