Birmingham REP is currently producing a season of shows around Birmingham due to it’s theatre becoming a building site thanks to the new library of Birmingham which is why I ended up going along to the New Alexandra Theatre to see the REP’s production of ‘The Wiz’. The REP’s ‘Change of Scenery‘ season hasn’t excited me much, but it’s production of ‘The Wiz’ appeared to be the highlight of the season. However I left the theatre full of disappointment that a show that appeared to promise a night of funky Motown songs embracing the story of the Wizard of Oz ended up being a trip to the theatre where I left coming up with poor sound bites for this blog.
The show opens with a fantastic projection of one of the witches (no idea which one) running towards the audience. This projection really is brilliant. It makes me sad that it is so brilliant as if the rest of the show was this good it’d have been a good show, but sadly the gauzes go up and it all starts to go a bit downhill. What appears to be a New York city apartment is, we later learn, Birmingham (it has never looked like that and the fact she needs to go back to Birmingham just screams ‘I want to be a panto’) and for a musical which was first produced in the late 70s with music from that era, a flat screen telly and a mobile phone look very out of place. Despite the confusion, when Aunt Em (Melanie La Barrie) sings the first of many songs, the negative thoughts change for a few minutes – but then Dorothy (Treyc Cohen) starts to take centre stage.
Treyc Cohen – a finalist in 2010’s ‘The X Factor’. She is a fantastic singer and I can’t fault her singing at all. But she is not an actor and cannot be expected to play a part where she is on stage for 99% of the show. A couple of years ago the REP did an amazing production of ‘Once on This Island’ with, like ‘The Wiz’ has a majority black cast. I can’t understand why the producers didn’t attempt to, or try harder to get one of the younger actresses from that production to play Dorothy instead. Cohen is, at times, more wooden than the scarecrow. There is a moment of pure woodenness when the characters are in the poppy field and she stands there just watching the rest of the characters fight clearly waiting for her cue to join in. She is, however, an amazing singer and I am glad I didn’t leave at the interval (which was considered) as otherwise I would have missed the closing number ‘Home’ in which she performs on an empty stage – if only she was this good throughout the whole show.
It would be unfair for me to blame everything that is wrong with the show on Cohen and I won’t. There are several other things that affect the whole show. The main one being the set. Designed by Rosa Maggiora the set and also the costumes aren’t great. The stage has a large exterior of what appears to be a block of flats which occur both in ‘Birmingham’ and Oz so at no time do we think we’ve travelled to another world. On top of that it takes up so much space that the cast are squashed on the front half of the stage restricting what could be awesome dance numbers. What’s worse is at times the centre of this comes forward thus even more restricting the space. At no point do Oz and the Emerald City feel special and unique. It feels as though all this is happening outside of Aunt Em’s and is highly disheartening.
For all it’s flaws there are some sparkles of greatness. As mentioned before, Melanie La Barrie (last seen in the RSC’s amazing musical version of Matilda) is brilliant as Aunt Em and uses what she’s been given as well as she can as Addaperie the witch of the somewhere. Clive Rowe (better known as Duke from Tracy Beaker) is fantastic as The Lion and manages a Lion King joke without it appearing forced and out of place (unlike the flat screen telly killing the bad witch). Wayne Robinson and Horace Oliver as the Scarecrow and the Tinman respectively also help to bring some rays of sunshine to this sometimes horrendous show. The REP have also used members of the community for the ensemble and although at times some of them look confused or trying to overdo some of the performing, on the whole work well and show what Birmingham can do.
You won’t be surprised that I found this production not meeting it’s potential. I went on press night and had a few mic fails, a big yellow brick that appeared to not want to light up, some lines forgotten and Dorothy even forgetting what the Lion wanted. These things aren’t great on any other night let alone press night but the cast didn’t appear to be trying to make the performance special in any way. At times it felt like a glorified dress rehearsal and there was no connection between the stage and the audience. The set needs changing, a competent Dorothy needs to be cast and the direction needs improving, then the potential could be met.
I don’t like leaving things on a bad note and like I’ve said before, Cohen deserves praise for her singing performances. So here is a video produced by the REP of Cohen rehearsing the closing number ‘Home’
The Wiz @ The New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham. On till Saturday 18th June. Tickets £12 – £28.50