Tag Archives: Amber Riley

“The Wiz” from The Shows Must Go On!

A change in schedule to this programme, proving a boon to theatre lovers during lockdown, was inspired by current protests. With an extra donation button to the NAACP added, this weekend offered a chance to see a show that made history by combining the classic Wizard of Oz story with African American culture.

This TV movie production, directed by Matthew Diamond and Kenny Leon, boasts a superb cast and some great costumes. It’s a shame that scenes are truncated and that filming hampers appreciation of the choreography.

With the exception of the show’s hit tunes (Ease on Down the Road and A Brand New Day) the music might disappoint. Led by Charlie Smalls (with Timothy Graphenreed, Harold Wheeler, George Faison and Luther Vandross), too many numbers feel a touch generic. Maybe that is a price of their success? The book by William F Brown is a lot more fun and the show’s humour considerable. Time and again, strong performances lift the songs above average. But what performances!

The Wiz Live! photo credit Virginia Sherwood/NBC
Shanice Williams and Amber Riley

With Mary J Blige as wicked witch Evillene and Queen Latifah as The Wiz, the singing is exceptional. Add Amber Riley as the good witch Addapearle and it’s musical theatre heaven. Shanice Williams plays a Dorothy better written that the original: “stubborn, strong, smart”, The Wiz makes her a more interesting heroine and even has a joke about her being a killer. Joined by Elijah Kelley, Ne-Yo and David Alan Grier, as the scarecrow, tin-man and lion, not a foot is put wrong as they all follow that yellow brick road.

With an all-black cast long before Hamilton and a famous film, this Tony Award-winning show is a testament to the importance of representation. And it knows it – characters claim that they “represent” more than once. Of course, they shouldn’t have to feel this need. It’s a shame that what should by now be a quaint historical point is still so valid, adding strength in a small way to the arguments of Black Lives Matter. Let’s hope for more than changes in programming when we finally return to theatres for real.

Available on The Shows Must Go On! YouTube channel until 14 June 2020

Photos by Virginia Sherwood/NBC

“Dreamgirls” at the Savoy Theatre

This 1981 Broadway hit, with book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music from Henry Krieger, reached movie screens before the London stage, so theatregoers have had to be patient. But it has been worth the wait. The story of a Motown girl group, and their trials in show business, its cast’s superb voices mean that from the first talent contest there’s no doubt fame will arrive for The Dreamettes. As the focus becomes the trio’s personal lives, with professional betrayals and broken relationships, powerful songs guarantee strong emotion.

Liisi LaFontaine plays Deena, the shy girl chosen to lead the band into stardom. She sounds fantastic and her acting is adroit. Asmeret Ghebremichael is Lorrell, another member of the group, who holds her own providing a welcome comic number, Ain’t No Party. Lorrell’s affair with the star the girls used to sing backing vocals for – played by the multi-talented Adam J Bernard – is strong in its own right.

Joe Aaron Reid and Liisi LaFontaine
Joe Aaron Reid and Liisi LaFontaine

The bigger story is the love triangle between Deena, the band’s manager Curtis (performed with a slick edge by Joe Aaron Reid), and Effie, jilted in love and abandoned by the band. And it’s all about Effie. Taking the role of this complex character, Glee star Amber Riley has the audience on its feet more than once. Her powerful voice brings goose bumps – do take the chance to hear her – but big credit also goes to her acting.

The music tells the simple story in a satisfyingly layered manner. Even weaker numbers, examples of cynicism rather than soul through the machinations of Curtis, reflect and comment on the characters’ lives. With the development of R&B into disco (again, blame the manager) variety is built in. It’s an accomplished musical history, aided by Gregg Barnes’ costume design, with a riot of sequins guiding us through the years and illustrating how to really wear a feather boa… if you didn’t already know.

But it’s the women rather than some calculated social history who bring this dream to life. Brilliant performances, packaged by Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography affording speed and immediacy, make the success, struggle and reconciliation both uplifting and entertaining.

Booking until February 2018


Photos by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg