The Wiz at Hope Mill Theatre – review

The musical is playing now in Manchester

The Wiz
The Wiz
© Pamela Raith

The Wizard of Oz has enjoyed a rich theatrical life. Wicked has known no place like home in the West End for over 15 years. Now, that iconic emerald green shimmers at Manchester's Hope Mill for a Black British retelling of The Wiz, in the musical's first UK production for 10 years.

It opens, like the classic 1939 film, in black and white. Simon Kenny's initially monochromatic set depicts orphan Dorothy's grey, colourless life. With a TV showing Black Lives Matter footage — flickering faces from John Boyega and Marcus Rashford — it could also be hinting at racial tensions. But the production spends no time detailing what it is Dorothy is escaping from in Oz beyond a sense of generalised poverty.

Instead, we're uprooted in an arresting tornado of visual effects and flurrying movement. The pixels of George Reeve's projections blow across the walls like gusts of wind, while Leah Hill's choreography creates a whirling vortex of contorted, curving arms and twisting, spiralling bodies. The pulsing dancing always carries through this energy, conveying the intoxication of a poppy field with sultry dancing accompanied by Simisola Majekodunmi's heady red lighting.

The magic of this spectacle is let down by clunky, gratuitous choices. The Scarecrow is first wheeled on in a trolley, and onstage seating only compresses the space. When Dorothy and her pals enter Emerald City, they join the residents in wearing green goggles introduced by dancers who strut and pose in them like on a Vogue catwalk, and the tints obscure our central characters' facial expressions.

Whereas Wicked delves into character development, The Wiz whizzes over it as lightly as the munchkins' Heelys. It leaves the cast to give pantomime-y, hammy performances. Ashh Blackwood's Evillene does little to inspire threat or villainy besides brandishing her costume's bright cleaning gloves like an incensed Kim Woodburn. As our heroine, Cherelle Williams appears sympathetically diminutive but relies on earnest looks and soft speech. She quietly listens to her aunt sing about their bond in the first number, "The Feeling We Once Had", but it proves a flat opening while hanging laundry on a clothes airer.

Williams isn't helped by director Matthew Xia's blocking which is often as rigid as the rusty Tinman, constantly fixing her to spots on the stage as though she's delivering an audition. The show finds vibrance when it breaks out of this. When each of Dorothy's companions is introduced, their songs are nicely inflected with character details: metallic cymbals for Llewellyn Graham's Tinman, booming vocal roars for Jonathan Andre's Lion, and Tarik Frimpong's Scarecrow stuttering on "t-t-time" like his stumbling walk. Frimpong's brilliantly loose physicality jerks his long, nimble limbs like he's trying to shake out stray strands of straw.

The cleverness of the musical's conceit is literally translating into the score the soul — the heart, brain and courage — Dorothy's companions lack. There are catchy, swinging melodies and stand-out ballads like the rousing duet "Be A Lion" and the clarinet trills which open the "Finale" redolent of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". These moments can lift you up like the Wiz's hot air balloon, but overall the production feels lacking a little soul of its own.