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Easing On Down . . .

The Wiz

Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company

The New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

****

BIRMINGHAM Rep is on something of a journey at the moment - an ‘off site’ journey, as they describe it.

While their home is being extensively refurbished for a re-opening in 2013, the company is taking it’s output ‘on the road’ to a variety of alternative city venues. The Alex theatre plays host to this particular offering - a smart choice of venue for a crowd pleasing musical - a genre this theatre is well used to taking on.

Inspired by the stories of the Brothers Grim, writer, Frank Baum published his tale ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ way back in 1900.

Various incarnations, spin offs and interpretations have appeared both on stage and on film ever since. Indeed, the public’s appetite for the story seems as strong as ever with ‘ The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Wicked’ currently playing to packed houses in the West End.

The Wiz opened on Broadway back in 1975 and became something of a cult hit in America. A film followed in 1978, starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, to mixed response.

The show continued to do well for a number of years before it’s popularity, as is the cyclical nature of shows, started to wane. Josette Bushell-Mingo’s revival brings the story bang up date - re-locating Dorothy from Kansas to Birmingham. A nice touch which genuinely makes the connection with the audience stronger and more personal.

JIGGERY POKERY

This being 2011, there is also a wealth of special effects and jiggery pokery to play with - something the Designers have used to good effect. Creepy projections, cranked up sound levels, echoing vocals and splitting sets all add to the dream like atmosphere and contrast well to the hum drum suburban setting of Dorothy’s terraced house in her beloved Brum.

Treyc Cohen stars as the fiesty Dorothy, a ‘modern’ girl well capable of holding her own amidst an array of new and often scary experiences.

A Shrinking Violet, she ain’t! Miss Cohen is the latest in a growing line of TV talent show finalists (in this case, The X factor) who get farmed out into musical theatre. Clearly, this makes for good box office and for happy producers but there is a problem here.

Whilst there is no doubting Miss Cohen’s singing ability, the role she is playing is absolutely pivotal and requires a skilled and broad range of acting skills that she simply does not yet have.

All the more frustrating when there are a host of superb trained singer/actors out there who don’t get a look in simply because they have not been on ‘telly’.

Whilst Miss Cohen makes a decent fist of her first musical theatre role, it could, and should, be so much better.

TIMING IMPECCABLE

On a more positive note, the support roles are often outstanding. Clive Rowe is majestic as The Lion - a creature whose courage and self esteem have left him. Rowe’s comedy timing is impeccable and his presence lifts every scene he is in.

Horace Oliver delights as the heart-deficient, Tin Man whilst Wayne Robinson delivers a cool Scarecrow - without a brain maybe, but with street cred to die for.

Strong performances too from Allyson Ava-Brown (Glinda/Evilene), Melanie la Barrie (Addaperle/Aunt Em) and Peter Straker as The Wiz.

Mention should be also be made of the Community Ensemble. Director, Josette Bushell-Mingo believes firmly in casting members of the local community and does so with impressive effect here. The community cast form an integral part of the show, bringing real energy and genuine enthusiasm to scenes.

The music, as one would expect, is the beating heart of this show. Stand out numbers included ‘ Ease On The Road’, ‘No Bad News’ ‘ Believe In Yourself’ and ‘ Home’.

If you are a fan of the original, you won’t be disappointed. It may be a different take, but the story and it’s themes remain unchanged. Whether it’s set in Leeds, Birmingham. Kansas or Timbuktu - it’s message is universal and touches a part of all of us.

The Wiz is a co-production between The Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company and The West Yorkshire Playhouse. It runs until 18-06-11

Tom Roberts

And from the other side of the hood . . .

****

Tamworth's Treyc Cohen has returned to the Midlands as a star in this heart-warming soul musical which is an iconic African-American re-telling of the famous Wizard of Oz tale.

The young lady who made such an impact in reaching the X-Factor finals on TV may not be the complete actress yet, but her fine voice carries her through this show with some style.

Treyc is excellent as Dorothy, torn from her home in Birmingham - yes, Birmingham - by a tornado and plunged into an amazing adventure in which she meets witches, Munchkins and pals up with a Scarecrow, Tinman and the timid Lion en route to a confrontation with the terrifying Wiz of Oz.

Naturally her Midland accent is suited to the Brummie link with the plot, but its her singing voice that people go to hear, and she doesn't disappoint, especially in the show-stopper, Home.

This is the Birmingham Rep's first visit to the New Alex during the company's two-year exile from their own theatre during major building work to create the ultra-modern new theatre/library, and it's an ideal show for the occasion.

Charlie Smalls' music and lyrics are superb and the cast - including professional actors and a supporting chorus of volunteers drawn from the most talented singers, dancers and actors in the region - deliver the goods on the yellow brick road.

Wonderful performances from Wayne Robinson (The Scarecrow), Horace Oliver (The Tinman) and Clive Rowe (The Lion), while Melanie La Barrie sparkles as Addaperle, the scooter-riding Good Witch of the North, and Allyson Ava-Brown excels in the role of Evilene, the Wicked Witch of the West. Peter Straker is an impressive Wiz who eventually leaves the scene in a balloon.

Directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo with George Dyer's musical direction and Paul J. Medford's choreography, this loveable musical runs to18.06.11

Paul Marston

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