The Wiz

(Harvest Rain Theatre Company)


Over the last 100 years, the wonderful land of Oz has well and truly entrenched itself into our entertainment culture. Books, stage shows and a certain 1939 MGM movie have ensured that the story of Dorothy, her little dog Toto and a certain pair of second-hand shoes is familiar to us all.

The most recent stage production drawing on the Oz myth is Wicked, currently flavour of the month on Broadway. Thirty years before that some of us might remember The Wiz, a funky ’70s soul version, which was then made into a fairly forgettable film starring Diana Ross, Richard Pryor and a (then black) Michael Jackson.

Given the enormous weight of audience expectation Oz now carries with it and the added difficulty of making a fairly dated musical interesting, Harvest Rain are taking on quite a challenge. In many ways, they exceed expectations. This production contains some of the best design concepts I’ve seen in community theatre in quite a while, and the music has us “easing on down the road” in true ’70s-boogy-funk style, despite the fact that the entire cast and production team are white. This all goes to show that some investment in the technical side of an amateur show can really lift the overall production value.

Director Tim O’Connor has chosen to emphasise the visual and sound marvel that The Wiz can be. The show borders on “concert-plus-dancing-spectacular” at times. This is a perfectly valid choice given how complex the staging might otherwise get and the fact everyone knows the story anyway. In the Harvest Rain version, poppies sport bright yellow swimming caps and matching umbrellas, crows wear enormous sunglasses and do interpretive dance, Munchkins are puppets with big hair, and plastic-clad Winkies have pink wigs and rattle chains. We’re always hanging out to see what the next fantastic costume-change will bring. But the design pièce de résistance is definitely the Wicked Witch of the West’s Afro wig, which has enough personality to be a character by itself.

This production was obviously cast with vocals as a primary concern, and every solo role is occupied by someone with a professional-quality belt voice. Dorothy (Rebecca Laughton) manages to look like Pippi Longstocking but sound like Anastacia, and for some reason it mostly works for this show. She is ably supported by a well-balanced Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion combination (Steve Bako, Jason Chatfield and Luke Kennedy), all three of whom can sing andact (and in at least two cases dance as well), a somewhat unusual feat in musical theatre territory.

Bil Campbell-Hurry as Glinda the Good Witch brings a delightfully zany energy to each of the scenes in which she appears, and her hot-pink costume must be seen to be believed. Then Kathryn McIntyre as Evillene the Wicked Witch romps her way through “No Bad News” with the aplomb of a veteran vocalist WAAPA should take note, as should everyone else. This voice will go far.

But the vocalists wouldn’t be able to do such a hip’n’groovy job without the band, whose tunes are more than capable of keeping everyone barrelling (and in some cases singing) along. The sound balance is excellent too.

This is a fun and completely untaxing show; everyone involved enjoys themselves hugely, and then it’s all over by 9.30pm. If you or your children are after a humorous romp in familiar territory, Harvest Rain’s The Wiz is for you. Watch for a highly irreverent solo from Toto in Act II.

— Ruth Bridgstock
(Performance seen: Wed 26th May 2004)