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The Wiz

Book by William F. Brown, music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls
Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company and West Yorkshire Playhouse co-production
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham
(2011)

The Wiz production photo

Birmingham, unlike Kansas, is not prone to tornados. But earlier this year one ripped through Broad Street tearing the Birmingham Rep from its own theatre and flinging it to venues across the city. It's been an exciting experiment for the 98 year old repertory which has so far staged productions in everything from a grungy Jewellery Quarter warehouse to the slick surrounds of the newly renovated mac complex in Cannon Hill Park. For their latest offering, a decidedly Brummy revival of the 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz, the Rep have chosen to use the New Alexandra Theatre. More commonly home to touring West End productions and popular tribute shows, the Alexandra is a suitable location for the Rep's attempt at a big musical. However I suspect many Rep regulars will share the sentiment that there is "no place like home" and be eagerly anticipating the Rep's return to its Broad Street home after renovation works and construction of the new Central Library are completed in 2013.

For those not familiar with the musical or the 1978 film adaptation starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, The Wiz is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz through the lens of African American culture. For their production the Rep have made tweaks to reference Birmingham's own Afro-Caribbean culture. In this version Dorothy (Treyc Cohen) is swept from her home in Birmingham to an Oz that looks more like a gritty New York neighbourhood rather than the idealised versions of Oz we normally imagine. Attempts have also been made to modernise the plot. Instead of Dorothy's house landing on the Wicked Witch of the East for example, the witch is killed by Dorothy's oversized flat screen TV.

William F. Brown's book moves at breakneck speed and at times feels more like a vehicle for Charlie Smalls' fantastic score of soul numbers. It seems there is an expectation that audiences will be familiar with the original story and characters and Brown spends little time developing them further. Clive Rowe is absolutely hilarious as the cowardly Lion and it is a shame that the script did not allow him more time to explore his character.

While X-Factor finalist Treyc Cohen has an outstanding voice she does not have the stage presence of her co-stars who often outshine her. The Tinman (Horace Oliver), Scarecrow (Wayne Robinson) and Lion (Clive Rowe) are all well cast, however Cohen's lack of experience and a chorus of community volunteers does at times make the production feel like a big budget high school musical.

Technology is well used to add effects at various points during the production, but at times it does feel slightly gimmicky. Projections on the Wiz's (Peter Straker) nightclub that make it appear that the building is dancing are very effective, while the slow motion tornado scene that pulls Dorothy's house apart was poorly executed. The local Birmingham references were well integrated into the story and were received well by the enthusiastic audience.

The musical numbers are undoubtedly the show's strongest element and are well delivered in this production. "I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday", performed by the Scarecrow and an ensemble of dancing crows was a highlight, while Dorothy's "Ease on Down the Road" is catchy enough to stay with you long after the show ends.

However as good as the music is, it is not enough to carry the show alone. The Rep has made a strong attempt to revive and modernise a difficult show. However the book's flaws combined with an inexperienced cast do mean that this production does feel slightly uncomfortable at times.

"The Wiz" is at the New Alexandra Theatre until the 18th June. At the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, from 24th June until 16th July.

Ray Brown reviewed this production in Leeds

Reviewer: Iain James Finlayson