The Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz“
Hope Mill Theatre
5 Stars *****
I’m always certain a visit to Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre will be worth the 480 mile round trip and The Wiz lived up to expectations and beyond! Even a 6 hour drive through a real Narnia blizzard! The theatre is now a registered charity aptly named ‘A Factory of Creativity’ and what better way to showcase such aspiration than this superb contemporary update of The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz”.
With superb direction from Matthew Xia, inventive and brilliant choreography from Leah Hill and exciting musical arrangements from Sean Green played by a first-class band, an outstanding cast transported us to Oz on an enlivening, characterful, super slick energised journey, full of wit, nuance, and brilliance:
No weak links in this multitalented cast and creative team!
The 1975 Broadway production of The Wiz won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and was then produced as a film in 1978 featuring an all-black cast of Mowtown and then TV artists. Based on L. Frank Baum‘s classic 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (which was well known as the completely different MGM Musical) the new Wiz score was completely original.
Director Matthew Xia’s approach is clear and blazing and absolutely captures his vision:
“The Wiz is approaching its 50th anniversary, it now exists within the canon of mainstream musicals and it’s due time for some bold reinvention. Originally a funk and soul-based analogy for the African-American experience, in 2021 Manchester we’re offering a contemporary take on the discovery of self-determination and Black joy with this celebration of Black culture across the African diaspora.”
The buzz in the theatre during the interval was palpable and the standing ovation at the end heartfelt and hugely deserved! Xia enabled each of his cast to fully portray and inhabit their characters with a confidence and panache that was truly electrifying and engaging. The cast were further blessed with a truly outstanding choreographic debut in Leah Hill and the dancing was simply Awesome! Super slick, precise, witty, surprising and with dance moments that advanced the story themselves… Outstanding on every level! Leah Hill is definitely a name to keep in mind and watch out for.
The film starred huge stars of the time in leading roles including Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Ted Ross and Richard Pryor, so big voices to follow! This young cast did not disappoint with extremely well-defined characters and impressive vocals. Cherelle Williams as Dorothy, has West End credits which include Mary Wilson/cover Diana Ross in ‘Motown the Musical’ and gave an assured and empathetic performance as Dorothy with especially beautifully sung solos Be A Lion and Home.
Her three compatriots helping her find her way home whilst also conquering their own demons along the way, all gave engaging, vibrant performances making the most of comedic opportunities and character moments. Jonathan Andre as Lion clearly was enjoying every moment and brought the house down with his larger-than-life role as a cowardly Mean Ole Lion. Tarik Frimpong as Scarecrow gives a super sassy performance with dazzling dance moves that had the audience gasping with wonder, and Llewellyn Graham in an assured professional debut performance was a sensitive, sympathetic Tinman. All three took their own centre stage moments with gusto and wit and great vocals!
This entire cast is super talented and supporting roles are all strong and memorable:
Cameron Bernard Jones charismatic Wiz is hugely entertaining;
Bree Smith as Aunt Em & Glinda strongly opens and closes the show; Anelisa Lamola is hilarious as Addaperle, and Ashh Blackwood takes the stage in Act 2 as Evillene and milks every moment visually and vocally in ‘Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News’.
The multiskilled ensemble of Winkies, Poppies, Flying Monkeys and assorted characters in Oz are characterfully played by Kofi Dennis, along with Shayna McPherson, Andile Mabhena, Marisha Morgan, Samantha Shuma, all making their professional debuts and looking like seasoned pros.
The story of The Wizard of Oz is of course well known but most people know the songs from the MGM Musical. Those unfamiliar with The Wiz will absolutely recognise the much-loved story but with the added adventure and treat of discovering a fabulous new score of wonderful songs including a few that some may recognise such as Ease On Down The Road and Brand New Day
Musical Supervisor Sean Green has created new orchestrations for this production and they are truly powerful and thrilling!…
“In thinking about how much the music is loved, I had the thought What if the music was a love letter to black music? I started hearing all sorts of music within the DNA of the score. This exploration has allowed me to incorporate various genres from across the African Diaspora in the new orchestrations which, alongside the funk and soul in the original, really adds depth and colour to the world that we’re creating with this production.”
Produced by Ameena Hamid, Chuchu Nwagu and Hope Mill Theatre, their vision is in no way limited by the venue size and their innovative creative team headed by Director Matthew Xia has created something spectacular.
Simon Kenny’s vividly colourful innovative design fills every inch of the stage, walls and ceiling (he had a Drama Desk Nomination for Outstanding Set Design of a Musical for the multi award-winning ‘Sweeney Todd’ in a fantastic purpose-built pie shop) with effective projections and special effects enhanced by Simisola Majekodunmi’s expressive Lighting Design. Tony Gayle’s Sound Design truly enhanced Musical Director Ehsaan Shivarani’s outstanding 8-piece band.
This soulful, soul-filling, exuberant, imaginative production surely deserves a transfer and a longer run in a larger theatre, but in the meantime those lucky enough to be living in Manchester and near Hope Mill theatre can enjoy a fantastical 6 weeks of Christmas WIZ Wonderment!
A tremendous, joyous production to raise hope and lift spirits!
Reviewed by Catherine Françoise
Mozart to Musicals
Reviewed Sunday 28th November 2021
2hrs 30mins including interval
The WIZ is running until the 16th January 2022
Production Photography by Pamela Raith.
Hope Mill Theatre in association with Ameena Hamid Productions presents
The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz”
Music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls
Book by William F. Brown
Based on The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Original Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler
Hope Mill Theatre
113 Pollard Street
Manchester M4 7JA
7.30pm, matinees Saturday and Sunday
Box Office: 0161 275 9141
(Tuesday – Friday 12pm-6:30pm)
Facebook: Hope Mill Theatre