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- American actress and singer (1922-1969)
In 1974 came the premiere, in Baltimore, Maryland, of The Wiz, a new stage musical based upon L Frank Baum’s beloved children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. A world away from the famous 1939 film version starring Judy Garland, the new show was distinguished by its use of African-American popular music and its being performed by an entirely black cast.
With a book by William F Brown and music by Charlie Smalls, the Wiz’s premiere was so successful that the show transferred to Broadway as soon as January 1975. That New York production picked up no fewer than seven Tony Awards, including the gong for Best Musical.
It has had occasional revivals, on stage and screen (including a 1978 movie starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson) on both sides of the Atlantic. However, it has not enjoyed the status that it deserves here in the UK. That may well be about to change, courtesy of this superb co-production by Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre (HMT) and Ameena Hamid Productions.
HMT is a great fringe theatre, but its small stage is an unlikely place to see a musical that requires a cast of, in this case, 14 performers. The excellent cast performs on a minimal set, with walls spray-painted with Oz-themed street art. The variable costumes, too, reflect the fact that this is an on-a-shoestring production.
Not that this matters much. The cast – from leads such as Jonathan Andre’s hilarious Lion (a would-be king of the dance floor in leather trousers – if only he had the courage) to the all-singing, all-dancing ensemble – are universally impressive. Cherelle Williams (who plays a Black British Dorothy swept off to an American Oz) is surely a musical theatre star in the making, combining, as she does, a powerful yet melodious voice with wonderfully sympathetic characterisation.
At the outset, the TV in the house Dorothy shares with her aunt and uncle is showing news footage including recent Black Lives Matter protests in the UK and the unveiling of the Marcus Rashford mural in Manchester. Such images relate perfectly to the show’s political dimension, reflected in songs such as the gloriously affirmative Everybody Rejoice (which was written by soul legend Luther Vandross).
This musical’s strongest suit, for sure, is its fantastic soundtrack, which encompasses black-American popular music from rhythm’n’blues to soul and funk. Imagine a score written by Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone and Rose Royce, and you have something approximating Smalls’s achievement.
Director Matthew Xia’s joyful, tight, brilliantly performed production should prove a festive hit at the Hope. However, it cries out for the kind of resources, and the big stages, that are enjoyed by West End musicals, many of which are frankly miles behind this show in terms of quality, talent and sheer entertainment.
Until Jan 16. Tickets: 0161 275 9141; hopemilltheatre.co.uk