Tag Archives: Kenny Leon

“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

“Hairspray” from The Shows Must Go On!

While few would call Marc Shaiman’s adaptation of John Waters’ movie a great musical, it is a lot of fun. And this version, filmed for TV by Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinski, performed live with a star cast and plenty of cash behind it, really does the piece proud.

Maddie Baillio is a superb Tracy Turnblad, the teen whose adventures we follow and whose body-positive attitude is inspiring. Baillio has an innocent edge and manages to convey how outrageous the character is supposed to seem. Fighting segregation in 1962 Baltimore, through her protests on The Corny Collins TV show, gives this musical a sense of purpose. Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book, along with witty lyrics from Shaiman and Scott Wittman, make sure there is merriment alongside messages.

With the exceptions of the opening and closing numbers, Shaiman’s score, while enjoyable, isn’t quite memorable enough. Although good pastiche, with a point to make about how African American music was appropriated into the mainstream, it doesn’t unify into a whole that builds. The tongue-in-cheek lyrics are often better than the tunes themselves.

The production impresses, though, not least with the massive film studio set of a whole street, moving traffic and even rain! Judicious use of split screens is only one example of the impressive camera work – cinematography that also gets the most out of some great choreography which, inexplicably, IMDb doesn’t seem to credit.

Best of all are the characters and cast that, from Hughes’ film onwards, have become much loved and loathed. As well as star cameos from Rosie O’Donnell and Sean Hayes, this version has a lot to boast about. The legendary Harvey Fierstein reprises his role as Edna Turnblad and it really is a marvel to see how much he can get out of punchlines (even when they aren’t that good). Jennifer Hudson makes Motormouth Maybelle’s anthem, Big, Blonde and Beautiful, as rousing as possible – what a voice! Garrett Clayton as Tracy’s love interest, Link, shows surprising depth, while Ariana Grande, as her friend Penny, proves a fine comic actress. Hairspray also has great villains – the mother and daughter Von Tussles. The latter provides a fine role for Dove Cameron, who made me laugh out loud more than once. As for mummy dearest, the spectacular Kristin Chenoweth is a scream every moment she’s on screen. Tracy may be aiming for a “degree in musicology with a minor in ethnic studies” and, secondly (good girl), Link’s affection, but Chenoweth already has a doctorate in giving a divine performance.

Available on The Shows Must Go On! YouTube channel until 31 May 2020

Photo by Brian Bowen Smith/NBC