Edinburgh Academy: Weds 6 – Sat 9 April 2016
Review by Thom Dibdin
Simply staged, brilliantly sung and delightfully choreographed, Forth Children’s Theatre hit their mark full square with this lively production of The Wiz at the Edinburgh Academy all week.
A soulful musical adaptation of the Wizard of Oz, The Wiz is possibly best know for the catchy Ease on Down the Road – but contains a complete hand of strong songs, from the funky to the raunchy, with plenty of room for emotional engagement.
Part of the attraction of the show is its large number of named roles with significant inputs. Which can be a bit of double edged sword when your cast has as much talent as this. There are at least five singers who get just the one song, but whom you would happily listen to all night.
Eilidh Park puts in a gold-plated five star performance in the opening number as Aunt Em, with The Feeling We Once Had. Regret oozes through every element of her performance, from inflection to demeanour, to the song arc, which makes it such a memorable performance – much more so than the number itself.
Director Phoebe Dowens has stripped the staging right back to the minimum, with nearly every element of Dorothy’s journey left to either lighting or to movement. It’s a clever move, given the size of the cast, the smallness of the playing area and the potential for stage sets to get in the way.
As a consequence, this doesn’t so much ease on down the road, once Dorothy has been whisked away to Oz in a twister, but whizz on down. And it is all the better for it – the storytelling is a little peremptory at times, but with such a well known tale there is little that is lost.
style and panache
However it does mean that Eilidh West’s Dorothy is more of a teenage girl to whom things happen, rather than one who instigates events. West has a suitably bemused air about her, but also creates a character who is kind at heart.
It also means that the eight strong dance troupe, led by Sophie Williams and Jude McLellan, are even more in the spotlight than you might expect. Their dance is used to drive the plot, whether it is the twister, the easing on down the road, the field of narcotic poppies or the flying monkeys.
Natasha Rose has choreographed them well, to just about the top of their abilities. Consequently the dance elements feel both technically tricky but are also executed with style and panache.
There is a huge variety of styles, too. From the tap with Reuben Woolard’s Tinman (an excellent, very human performance), to the sensual poppy field seduction of the Lion, to whose voice Charlie West gives a rasp of Tom Waits-like gravel.
But perhaps the best song and dance moment from Dorothy’s three travelling companions is from Gus Harrower’s Scarecrow. With Sophie Williams, Tawana Maramba and Gracie Briggs giving it soul-sister backing vocals as a trio of crows, Harrower delivers his I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday with subtlety and feeling.
Oz’s three witches are all given great licks, both with their numbers and the performances.
Helen Hunter does the tricky job of creating a witch whose magic doesn’t ever quite work in Addaperle, without ever compromising her own performance. There’s plenty of comedy in her slightly bumbling character, and Hunter knows how to use it wisely.
Caitlyn Vanbeck has possibly the most enjoyable time of it all, as Eveline: the Wicked Witch of the West. Vanbeck is a young singer who knows how to both use a tune and put in a performance, making her Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News an invigorating second half opener, packed with storytelling.
But it is to the end of the show that the beauty belongs, with the good witch Glinda’s A Rested Body Is a Rested Mind. Harmony Rose-Bremner does every element of the song justice bringing a stately full stop to the adventures in Oz.
As for the Wiz himself, Oliver Snodgrass has the presence to be a believable, evangelising charismatic. When it comes to his big number, Believe in Yourself, he gives it a thoughtful, clearly stated outing.
Where the whole production does sacrifice an element, is in the depth to the story. It never quite escapes is roots in L Frank Baum’s rural original, to fully arrive in William F. Brown’s retelling, which has a strong late 20th century urban American environment.
But, all told, a great night out which gives a really strong outing for Charlie Smalls’ music and lyrics. None of the accents grate and when the whole ensemble is at full flight on stage, there is a real kick to it.
Running time 2 hours 5 minutes (including one interval)
Edinburgh Academy, 42 Henderson Row, EH3 5BL
Wednesday 6 – Saturday 9 April 2016
Evenings: 7.30pm; Sat matinee: 2.30pm.