Having missed this show the first time around I was grateful to the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love for providing the opportunity to catch a reprise of ZooNation’s modern-day take on The Wizard of Oz. If you’re an old-fashioned romantic like me, you may wonder where the love interest is in L. Frank Baum’s classic story; but I was to realise the error of that insular thinking quicker than a tornado in Kansas. It’s all about love, of course, beginning with Dorothy’s affection for little Toto (although not so little – or even so canine – here) and in the bonds that blossom and grow between the five intrepid adventurers as they groove on down the Yellow Brick Road on an expedition that encompasses the Tin Man’s quest for a heart.
In a flight of fancy equal to anything conjured up by Baum’s imagination, this show’s greatest sleight of hand is to have constructed a truly professional, West End-worthy production from the performances of young, amateur dancers, under the age of 19. Known as “Zick”, the ZooNation Youth Company is an integral part of the brand and many members have already performed with the main ensemble: who could forget Annie Edwards’ show-stopping turn as Fairy G in the company’s first big hit, Into The Hoods. This crossover of talent runs the gamut of educational work, coaching, choreography and performance to have built a seamless arrangement for the whole ZooNation where there no longer seems to be much distinction between the amateur youth and the professional dancer. In terms of attitude, enthusiasm and skill they’re all “professional”. Certainly, the young dancers in Groove On DownThe Road stand to gain more strength, advanced technique and even more dynamic moves; an astonishing prospect when they are this good already!
In ZooNation’s vision of Oz, “Kansas” is a rundown school where creative arts have been extinguished from the curriculum (clearly written when Michael Gove was still the relevant man from the ministry). The character of Dorothy (Portia Oti) is largely autobiographical since she comes directly from the adolescent experiences of Kate Prince (ZooNation’s director and this show’s co-choreographer – alongside Carrie-Anne Ingrouille) who found it impossible to engage with education while just sitting and listening in a classroom. So, there is no Aunty Em or Kansas farmyard in Prince’s interpretation where the Tin Man (Mikey Ureta, 18) starts out as the school bully with the Lion (a mop-haired Tom Stratford, just 13) as his principal victim. This clever set of relevant modernisations persists throughout the show – which, by the way, is all done and dusted in 75 minutes – with sundry cute touches like the Wicked Witch of the West (a delightful cameo by Edwards) being contactable at www.www.com !
Performing as the Scarecrow, 17 year-old Jaih Betote Dipote Akwa – who arrived in England from Brazil (via France) – already has a broad enough repertoire of ninja street dance skills to be sure of the transition to a professional career; and the same is true of the “dog”. As Toto, 18 year-old Michael McNeish possesses an explosive range of movement topped by an effusive personality, projected through the beaming beacon of the broadest smile imaginable. Another notable twist was to have a pair of brothers performing as The Wizard of Oz and the Wiz Kid (respectively Steven and William Pascua, aged 19/12), the latter being the geeky young man who is projecting the Wizard digitally via a series of computers (eerily more or less exactly as shown in the 1939 film, although that digital image of the mighty Oz was created by pulling giant levers). Both Pascua siblings performed a Krumping-style solo that suited the circumstances perfectly. And, lastly, there was Chante Simpson (another 18 year-old) as the modern-day Glinda, known here as the Good Witch Gee, with tight red trousers replacing the diaphanous white tulle.
The Yellow Brick Road is made of blank yellow pages from school notebooks, another satirical barb about the lack of inspiration that would exist in a school without creative outlets, and it regularly took the performers off the stage and up around the aisles of the QEH, thus getting close to the whole audience (while giving those of us at the front – and of a certain age – cricked necks). The set and costume designs by Ben Stones (also responsible for Some Like It Hip Hop) manage to both respect this well-loved story and yet be innovative and modern.
As in all ZooNation shows, the score – put together, as usual, by DJ Walde – is eclectic and fast-moving with something like 40 numbers in 75 minutes, ranging from the obvious (Over The Rainbow, in Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s ukulele-based version) to the less so (Justin Timberlake’s Let The Groove Get in, for example). Songs featuring Michael Jackson made it from the soundtrack of The Wiz and the Jacksons were evident throughout the score – taking in Janet’s Got ‘Til It’s Gone and Michael’s Off The Wall, which provided an exhilarating feel-good finale.
Looking through the biographies of the young performers (there are alternate casts for every role) it is remarkable how many were inspired to take up hip hop by watching ZooNation’s earlier successes, notably Into The Hoods, and inspiring to know that this is a never-ending pipeline of opportunity and talent. How many kids watching Groove On Down The Road will be similarly motivated? I’m guessing, that will be lots.
This journey to Oz runs at the SBC until 26th August and is a great way to round off the summer with yet more fun. It also looks like being the springboard for several young people to groove on up to a dance career.