The Wiz started life as a Broadway show in 1975, based on Lyman Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Producer Ken Harper transferred the tale from rural Kansas to the city, creating a “super soul musical” which would speak to the African American community, reflecting on slavery and the contemporary battle for civil rights. The show did well on Broadway and in 1978 was adapted to film, starring Diana Ross as Dorothy.
An iconic American tale cleverly adapted to relate to black culture and memory, The Wiz is now the subject of a collaboration between Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse. Director Josette Bushell-Mingo’s creation sees Oz transported to modern-day Leeds, a fact that is referred to with irritating frequency. The Emerald City becomes a nightclub, and Dorothy a local schoolgirl. It’s an attempt to bring up-to-date a show that had such meaning and power for its 1970s audience, speaking directly to the painful African American experience. We can still clearly see the slavery references; Evilene the evil witch portrays white slave owners, while the quest to find the Wiz reflects African American search for identity and equality following emancipation. This seems to sit uneasily with Josette Bushell-Mingo’s intended appeal to an English audience of various cultural backgrounds. I could not help but feel that there is some weakness in this ambiguity, this multicultural approach. The original musical was clearly about hugely significant issues, civil rights and slavery, and these very issues affected everyone, regardless of background. Transferring this definitively American show to modern England has watered-down the original meaning, and introduced an element of confusion; is it a show about African American experience, or about British modern life and our search for identity?
There are good reasons for catching The Wiz, though. The show marks the professional debut of Treyc Cohen, former X Factor contestant. Cohen gave a decent performance, demonstrating an impressive voice despite being cast alongside wonderfully powerful male singers Clive Rowe as the Lion, Wayne Robinson as the Scarecrow, and Horace Oliver as the Tin Man. Particularly enjoyable were Robinson’s ‘I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday’, Oliver’s hilarious ‘Slide Some Oil to Me’, and the mournful ‘If I Could Feel’.
Part of Bushell-Mingo’s vision was to enable young local people to be involved in The Wiz through a community ensemble cast. The cast is made up of 16 people with a passion for singing, dancing or acting. This is one of the show’s great strengths, not only showcasing young local talent, but also adding real vitality to the performance, with the “beautiful people” of the Emerald City nightclub and the exuberant Munchkins, garbed in wonderful gypsy hotchpotch fashion.
As performances go The Wiz is actually rather tacky and naff, but strangely still enjoyable. There’s a giant glitter-ball which is used probably too enthusiastically in the final scene, and some of the songs border on being cringe-worthy. The set is bulky and overcomplicated, but at the same time delightfully appealing, with its glowing yellow brick wall and delicate running water effect projected onto the wall. Set and Costume Designer Rosa Maggiora has truly excelled in her clothing creations; the striking sparkle of the Good Witch of the South, the wonderful flowing mane of the Lion and Addaperle’s colourful folk-inspired garb. In all, The Wiz is a strange combination of glitzy and aesthetically pleasing, absurd and hilarious, all polished off by some great singing and music. Of course it’s not meant to be sophisticated, and this show does what it should, providing exuberant escapist fairy-tale entertainment. If you don’t dig too deep, there’s much to enjoy here.
The Wiz is playing at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds until the 16th July. For more information and for booking visit the website.