The Wiz review – a warm and wondrous ode to Black joy

·2 min read

Hope Mill theatre, Manchester
With belting vocals and dazzling dance, this musical update jumps into a vivid Oz full of street art and neon lights

Director Matthew Xia’s updated staging of The Wiz – the 1970s “super soul musical” based on The Wizard of Oz – begins, like MGM’s beloved film of L Frank Baum’s children’s book, in a world drained of colour. Kansas is the name of the grey tower block where Dorothy lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, watching news footage of Black Lives Matter protests flicker across the TV in black and white.

Though this opening reflects struggle, Xia’s revival is ultimately an ode to Black joy. From the moment Dorothy lands in Oz – a vivid urban landscape of street art and neon lights – the show bursts into full theatrical Technicolor. Charlie Smalls’ and William F Brown’s adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a 70s celebration of African American culture. Xia and his team shift that celebration to the here and now, adding more recent cultural references, expanding the frame to include Black British experiences, and situating the magic and wonder of Oz firmly within the city environment.

Against the brightly painted brick walls of Simon Kenny’s set, Dorothy (an infectiously warm Cherelle Williams) makes her way down the yellow brick road towards the Emerald City. In a strong central quartet of performances, she’s joined by Jonathan Andre’s strutting yet scaredy-cat Lion, Tarik Frimpong’s fluid-limbed, back-flipping Scarecrow and Llewellyn Graham in an impressive professional debut as the Tin Man. They’re backed by an ensemble with serious moves, not to mention some belting vocals.

Related: ‘It’s time to bring out The Wiz!’ The wild return of the super soul musical

The show’s opening minutes feel a little sluggish, but once we’re transported to Oz the energy rarely lets up. The music (with new orchestrations by Sean Green) and the dancing are the stars here, making up for the patchiness of Brown’s book. Leah Hill’s choreography is responsible for many of the most memorable moments, from the vogueing inhabitants of the Emerald City to the Wicked Witch of the West’s breakdancing gang of winged monkeys.

This is smart festive programming from Hope Mill: colourful fantasy with an injection of contemporary popular culture. At the end of a year that’s often felt grey and drab, The Wiz is a welcome escape.

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