The classic movie 'The Wizard of Oz' has become a Christmas staple. Though not a Christmas film in itself, you will always find it on TV on Christmas Day, with many families making a tradition of watching it each year. So it feels fitting that for their Christmas production this year, the Hope Mill Theatre have put on The Wiz.
If you're not familiar, The Wiz is a reimagining of the classic story from L. Frank Baum. First appearing in 1974, it headed to Broadway the following year and was turned into a movie starring Michael Jackson and DIana Ross in 1978. Since then, it hasn't been staged too often and has only been seen in the UK three times before, but never made it to the West End. A 2015 live Broadcast in America re-emerged as part of last years streaming series 'The Shows Must Go On' and left us all longing for a new production to head our way. Thankfully, we haven't had to wait too long.
The creative team have united to create a piece of theatre that is made with true love and passion. That is evident with every detail of this spectacular production. Directed by Matthew Xia, who himself has a personal relationship with the show, the show has been re-imagined somewhat to no longer take place in the 1970s. Instead, we find Dorothy in an urban landscape in 2021, with the story starting with all too familiar footage on a TV screen. Produced by Ameena Hamid, Chuchu Nwagu and the Hope Mill Theatre, they might be limited in terms of what can be achieved in set pieces given the size of the theatre but you really wouldn't know it to look at this production. Innovative design from Simon Kenny contemporarises the story and includes a satisfying reveal as our herione arrives in Oz.
The cast have been expertly assembled by Ryan Carter and wow. What a cast they are! The talent on that stage are second to none, forming one cohesive unit while taking turns to shine in their own standout moments. A mix of performers making their professional debuts and other young up and comers, you get the feeling you are witnessing the birth of several superstars on this stage.
Dorothy is played by Cherelle Williams, who rather fittingly played Diana Ross in Motown. Sweet and charming, she brings the house down (though not on a witch this time) with her musical numbers including 'Be A Lion' and the timeless showstopper 'Home' demonstrating a remarkable talent that is sure to take her far in the future. Bree Smith gets two small but memorable roles as Aunt Em and Glinda, practically bookending the show with sensational performances of her own, while Anelisa Lamola is hilarious as Addaperle.
You have to be brave to take on the roles of the three acquaintances Dorothy meets along the way, given the high calibre of people who have played them in the past but Jonathan Andre captures the essense of the Lion perfectly while Llewellyn Graham wins hearts as the Tinman. Tarik Frimpong shows a lot of brains in his approach to the Scarecrow with incredible dance moves and a stage presence that threatens to steal every scene he is in. Cameron Bernard Jones is a revelation as The Wiz, channelling the complexities of his personality while Ashh Blackwood is delightfully evil as Evillenne, delivering a storming 'Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News'. The cast are completed with an insanely talented and versatile ensemble who ensure the ridiculously high standard on that stage never slips.
The music in The Wiz sounds every bit as fresh and impeccable as it did when it first appeared nearly 50 years ago. 'Ease On Down The Road' remains an absolute standout while 'Brand New Day', having been performed in several streamed productions over the last year, was as joyous and life-affirming as I hoped it would be on the stage. Other impressive elements include a brilliant use of props (the gifts from The Wiz was sheer genius), gorgeous lighting and video projections that make the piece as atmospheric as you would hope, transporting you to the land of Oz (Though the fact I had to travel there through a storm also helped).
It's fair to say this production of The Wiz ticks every box and get pretty much everything right. However, this is one element that truly goes above and beyond. That is the slick and impressive choreography from Leah Hill. My jaw hit the floor the moment the dancing started. That flawless level was maintained throughout the next two hours with some of the most precise choreography I have ever seen on a stage - better than a lot of West End shows!
This production truly shows what you can achieve. Storming through any perceived limits of what is or isn't possible of a show being staged in a relatively small space, The Wiz is a feast for the senses and among the best pieces of theatre I have seen all year. I don't use the word "Perfect" lightly but that really is how I feel about this phenomenal production. Just perfect.
While you can catch The Wiz at the Hope Mill Theatre over Christmas, I would be VERY surprised if that was the last we see of this production. Could this be the West End debut this show deserves? All I know is I left the theatre desperate to sit through this flawless production again. Now if only getting there from London was as simple as clicking my heels together three times.
The Wiz plays the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester until January 16th. Tickets from www.hopemilltheatre.co.uk
Photos by Pamela Raith.