After a week off, the weekly streaming series The Shows Must Go On was back with a title many of us have been waiting for - the all star production of The Wiz.
The Wiz is a retelling of the L. Frank Baum novel The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz. While the Judy Garland movie remains the most famous iteration of the story, this one also lifts elements from the original novel, some of which are not in the iconic movie. The Wiz began life as a 1975 Broadway musical, and took on new life three years later when Diana Ross and Michael Jackson starred in a major film adaptation. This production was filmed and broadcast live in 2015 as part of NBC's annual series of musical adaptations, and combines aspects from both the original Broadway musical and the movie.
NBC's live musicals are notoriously inconsistent. When you start to watch one, you're essentially flipping a coin to see whether you will be entertained for 2 hours or whether you'll lose the will to live very quickly. The Wiz followed the critically panned The Sound Of Music and came before the vast improvement that was Hairspray so where did this one fit?
This is the show on these weekly streams I was most excited for. A big fan of both The Wizard Of Oz and Wicked, I have inexplicably never seen The Wiz, in the theatre or even the famous movie, though one of its songs has been one of my favourites for a long time. I set high expectations for this one and was worried it wouldn't live up to them.
Thankfully, The Wiz is one of the better NBC broadcasts. Where previous titles got things wrong, this production learns from its mistakes and rectifies them. Where The Sound Of Music had a sprawling set which lost some of the charm if you were seeing the show on a stage, The Wiz is more conventional to theatre, keeping to a relatively small set which helps keep the illusion you are sitting in a theatre with the action in front of you. With impressive effects including a fantastic tornado scene at the beginning, and an ever changing stage, keeping the action in one place is one of the biggest successes this show has. Though a couple of effects don't have the gravitas they should - this is live theatre and things can always go wrong. I think that always makes it more exciting than seeing something that was filmed and edited to be "perfect".
One of the biggest criticisms of the NBC musical was its stunt casting. Many of us are still having nightmares about Carrie Underwoods portayal of Maria Von Trapp. The show still stunt cast huge superstars for this show, but thankfully most of them delivered. Queen Latifah oozed charisma as the gender reversed titular Wiz, while Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy in the original Broadway production, had a standout moment at the beginning as Aunt Em. Elijah Kelley was a standout as Scarecrow - not an easy task when Michael Jackson was in the shoes before him, while Glee survivor Amber Riley and Orange Is The New Black star Uzo Aduba have star turns albeit all too brief as two of the Witches.
Not all the stars gave great performances. Ne-Yo's acting left a lot to be desired as the Tin-Man, though his singing was a standout. And then there was the legendary Mary J Blige who camped it up as a pantomime villain to play Evillene, the Wicked witch of the West. Maybe it is just me being accustomed to Wicked, but I didn't enjoy her portrayal of the role. It really did feel like something you'd get in a childrens pantomime. I too was cheering when she was killed (although if water melts you, don't keep it around you. It's not hard, is it?)
The main role of Dorothy Gale went to newcomer Shanice Williams. She more than delivered in this role, holding her own when playing against TV, Music and Broadway royalty. 'Home' remains one of the greatest musical theatre songs of all time, whether it is launching the career of Whitney Houston or being sung to the problematic cast of Glee by Kristin Chenoweth, it is hard to get that song wrong, and Shanice delivers a powerful version of it.
For West end theatre fans, the show also featured a Dreamgirls cast reunion with Amber Riley reuniting with one of her fellow Dreams, Asmeret Ghebremichael, who is one of the ensemble in the show.
As well as the aforementioned 'Home', the songs are one of the things that make this production such a success. 'Ease on down the road', 'You can't win' and 'The feeling we once had' were highlights of the show. This version also featured a new song 'We Got It' written by two of the stars, Ne-Yo and Elijah Kelley. Fans of Pose will be thrilled by a fantastic ballroom scene in the show as well.
The show isn't without its faults. It's hard to compete with The Wizard Of Oz obviously, but also sine The Wiz first came out, Wicked has become one of the biggest musicals in the world. The Wiz sits in the middle of those two - it does manage to hold its own, even if it doesn't quite match the highs of both the others. And ultimately, it is still a problematic story about a teenager who murders people and steals their shoes.
This is definitely one of the better NBC live broadcasts, up there with Hairspray as one of the standout productions. The show celebrates an all black cast full of some of the most talented people in the creative industries - literally every member of the ensemble gives a flawless performance. With great staging, some amazing songs and a faithful recreation of what it would be like to see it in the theatre, this is definitely something worth investing two hours of your life. I would quite welcome a West end revival of The Wiz too.
Next weeks title is likely to be 2014's Peter Pan, which apparently is not one of the better ones, to put it nicely. The title will be confirmed on Monday. In the meantime, The Wiz will be available to watch on youtube.com/theshowsmustgoon until Sunday 14th June at 7pm. Direct link below: