REVIEW: The Wizard of Ōtāhuhu (Māngere Arts Centre and Q Theatre)

Review by James Wenley

[No Place like Home]

Over the last five years, every April school holidays, a movement has been growing at the Māngere Arts Centre. Repurposing canonical children’s stories with a Tāmaki Makaurau twist, each year directors Alison Quigan and Troy Tu’ua have held open auditions to cast the shows from the community. The first shows were produced in association with Auckland Theatre Company (including Polly Hood in Mumuland and The Lollywitch of Mumuland), but the directors have subsequently gone it alone; last year’s show, Mirror Mirror, was recognised with an Excellence Award at the Auckland Theatre Awards.

This year’s show, The Wizard of Ōtāhuhu, features a cast of 40 ranging from 9 to 30 years old. The kaupapa is to grow South Auckland performing talent and industry skills, allowing the committed amateurs to work alongside professionals including Elizabeth Whiting (costumes), John Parker (set), Pos Mavaega (sound), Andrew Potvin (lighting), Elvis Lopeti (choreography) and Siosaia Folau (musical direction). Striking a blow against the silo-isation of Auckland theatre, they have been able to remount their production in the CBD for the July school Holidays. The collaboration between Māngere Arts Centre and Q Theatre is a very welcome development; shows that tour across a network of venues around our expansive Super City are still relative novelties.

L Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (debuting in 1900) is one of the defining fantasies of the 20th Century and retains considerable currency into the 21st Century. You’ll know the movie (the 1939 classic), and stage musical adaptations including the 1975 The Wiz, repurposed for the African-American experience, and 2003’s revisionist Wicked. The story’s narrative formula, simplified and refined by the film, makes for an appealing template for adaptation: our young hero Dorothy finds herself a stranger in a strange land, befriends three allies who each possess distinct qualities, is challenged by evil, but stays true to her values and overcomes, and they all learn that they had the capacity inside them the whole time to achieve their quests. It’s a comforting morality tale of how to move through the world – that you are whole and complete and do not need to be externally valued to be worthy. The story of the Kansas girl is also thoroughly home-brand USA, so how does it get reshaped for an Ōtāhuhu context?

It’s the eve of Dorothy’s (Irene Folau) 16th birthday. Her two Aunties Siapo (Luse Sua-Tuipulotu) and Sila (Unalota Funaki) insist she keep following their rules, but Dorothy wants more freedom. She doesn’t dream of going over the rainbow, but she and her dog Koko (Aaron Ryan, who gains the gift of the gab), wind up in Rainbow’s End anyway (cue the Theme park’s theme song) after a weather event separates her from her family.

The Wizard of Ōtāhuhu largely follows the expected template. The munchkins (Rainbows End employees) entrust her with red jandals (what else?) and she begins her adventures. She finds scientist-turned brainless Scarecrow (Josephine Mavaega), happens upon a circuit board-wearing Tin Man (Bob Savea), whose lack of heart makes him an uncaring dick, and finally a cowardly Lion (Rokolani Lavea) who had a promising music career until he became too anxious to sing in public. A clever addition from the Ōtāhuhu team is that each of these characters had a previous run-in with a witch, which explains their current predicaments.

This version of the tale is loaded with FOUR wicked witches – West (Brady Peeti), East (Petmal Lam), South (Te Keepa Aria) and North (Daedae Tekoronga-Waka) (The Good Witch of Central, keeping them in check, having recently died). Not only wicked, the witches are also fierce, genderqueer and diva-tastic (for my money, they are the definite winners of a dance off later in the show). Making a ‘Bootylicious’ entrance at the top of the show, their goal is to claim the red jandals. An aversion to water gives Peeti a welcome excuse to gloriously belt Adele’s ‘Set Fire to Rain’.

Essentially, The Wizard of Ōtāhuhu is South Auckland: The Revue. Local references and arbitrary musical numbers are plugged into The Wizard of OZ’s narrative. Its an affectionate love letter to the sights and sounds of South Auckland – from the Botanical Gardens to the pride displayed by Tonga Rugby team supporters (the furthest the show goes with any edgy commentary is a hilarious argument between Dorothy’s Aunties over the merits of Tonga versus Manu Samoa – “Tonga lost to England and blamed the referee.”)

There are a few surprising and satisfying song choices. The lyrics to Afroman’s ‘Because I got High’ are rewritten to tell the story of how Tinman got catfished, and Lavea as the Lion delivers an emotionally show-stopping rendition of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’. But mostly the song and dance numbers are jandal-horned in and untethered to the narrative (such as ‘September’ in the Emerald City). By the time Dorothy sings ‘This is Me’, The Greatest Showman’s ubiquitous anthem, it feels both inevitable and entirely dramatically unearned (to be fair, the same thing could be said of its use in the film). It does deliver to its target audience however – the kids sitting in my row lit up in this sequence, heartily singing “Look out ’cause here I come…” along with Dorothy.

Dorothy’s characterisation is illustrative of the show’s storytelling issues. She’s barely introduced before she arrives at Rainbow’s End and remains a broad sketch – her stated motivation is to look for the “next adventure.” Her ‘This is Me’ moment relies on her (and the audience!) gaining magical powers, rather than a solution that comes from her own ingenuity. We are given some good gags and fun musical sequences which showcase the performers, but the creative team haven’t found much in the story itself. Just because this is a kid’s show doesn’t mean anything goes story wise, indeed, I’d argue it makes it even more crucial. What are the values and messages the story is giving the young? How can the story provide resonances and reminders for the young-at-heart? The team don’t seem to have much of a point of view of what their story of The Wizard of Ōtāhuhu could mean beyond providing a platform for the community, or if they do, it hasn’t come through.

Q theatre has rarely looked as spectacular as it does here under Andrew Potvin’s lights, who goes to town (or the Emerald City) with the technicolour possibilities of LEDs. Whiting’s costumes are delightful, and Elvis Lopeti’s choreography and the joyous ensemble grooving are cheered on by the audience. Opening night was blighted by sound and balance issues – always disheartening for audience and performers – and hopefully this will be adjusted for the remainder of the season (they are performing two times a day – 2pm and 7pm!)

Making a massive homegrown contribution to theatre for children and full of community spirit, The Wizard of Ōtāhuhu has heart in abundance. Neither does it lack for brains. But what the team need is the courage to demand dramaturgical excellence of themselves. Having proven that the performers have talent to burn, future shows could use more storytelling investment to give them a platform they are worthy of.

The Wizard of Ōtāhuhu is presented by Māngere Arts Centre – Ngā Tohu o Uenuku in collaboration with Q Theatre and plays at Q Rangatira until 14 July. 

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