Review: Zoonation - Groove on Down the Road

Performance: 10 August - 1 September 2013
Reviewed by Rachel Nouchi - Friday 16 August 2013

Some of the cast of Zoonation's 'Groove on Down the Road' at Southbank Centre Photo: Bettina Strenske

Hold onto your baseball caps for this latest slice of hip hop action in ZooNation’s Groove On Down The Road. Based on the original Wizard of Oz fable with a mega modern twist for a hip hop generation- ZooNation’s Youth Company ignite the stage with a jamming, funky, body popping, toe tapping show bursting with spirit, which also encompasses the bigger issues of friendship, courage and compassion.

The performance opens onto a drab, monochrome classroom full of uninspired children slumped lethargically over their desks, all A grade retrogrades and F grade students, apart from the obligatory class Goodie Two Shoes, tolerated by the teacher and despised by the other children. There’s nothing creative or supportive in this classroom. Sadly, it’s an all too familiar scene. Who doesn’t remember at least one classroom moment where the teacher makes it all so earth shatteringly dull? Picture yourself slumped over a wooden desk in an overheated classroom, willing the bell to ring to transport you a million miles away…

For creator and director of the show, Kate Prince, this is an issue close to her heart. She was one of those children who found it difficult to engage in academic studies and found the school system bereft of creativity with little chance to shine.

Sets and action stay close to school themes, from the yellow brick road made up of blank sheets from exercise books to Emerald City High, the home of Oz, the cast resplendent in green American cheerleader outfits. While the opening scene zooms in on boredom, by the time we have been to Oz and back, the finale reveals an enlightened Dorothy presenting liberating gifts to her frustrated classmates; a canvas, violin, ballet shoes or a woolly hat meant for hip hop.

Although the narrative backdrop is resonant with personal meaning for Prince, it’s by no means a castigatory piece about the school system. Any such political message would be lost, overshadowed by the brilliance of its youthful performers who transmute only warmth and passion.

And the journey to Oz is all here in glorious Technicolor, from the glittering bright ruby hi-tops representing the signature Dorothy shoes to whirlwind athleticism, fire-red wigs surrounded by hallucinogenic poppies, a cheeky psychedelic Wicked Witch of the West accompanied by her masked roadies and an infectious musical score from DJ Walde with chunks taken from Michael Jackson’s 1978 film, The Wiz, re-mixed with current hits – Justin Timberlake as well as Stevie Wonder and Janet Jackson classics – a blissful blend of rap, rare groove soul and pop.

The stage is swathed in rainbow colours and the drab brick walls of the class room at the back of the stage are transformed (by designer Ben Stones) into a blackboard projection, with useful animated words chalked up, introducing scenes and characters, as there’s no spoken word or fully blown theatrical costume. The Lion, superbly nailed by Corey Culverwell, is entirely credible despite a laid back costume of orange t-shirt and brown slacks – and the same can be said for the rest of the cast.

Portia Oti is perfectly cast as the wide eyed Dorothy, hair in bunches, all gangly legs and arms at once naïve but no less a leader of sorts of her motley crew, Toto, Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow as they seek out courage, brains, heart and home. Nimble footed and adept, Oti’s neat moves and pure stamina are impressive as Dorothy and along with her merry crew, manage to sustain high octane acrobatics and grooving with barely a breather for the entire 70-minute run.
Michael McNeish as Toto was no less impressive as he flung himself up to the sky with the excitement of a small puppy and the athleticism of an Olympic pole vault star, as was Jaih Betote Dipito Akwa as the lovable Scarecrow.

The choreography flows from beginning to end and eyes are only averted from centre stage (cleverly allowing scene changes) when dancers follow the yellow brick road off the stage and around the auditorium, winding their way through the aisles to encouraging whoops from the audience. You have to pinch yourself to remember that the cast members are youngsters aged from 10 to 19 years, given the slick level of professionalism, execution of steps and incredible reserves of energy and spirit. It’s hard to believe that some of them are still in primary school.

The production reaches out in equal measure to both adults and children and my nine year old companion was so taken with the acrobatics of hip hop that she’s ditching gym to try out Prince’s ZooNation Saturday school , weekly sessions for aspiring hip-hop dancers from the ages of 4 to 21 years. This show’s cast, however, are all part of the ZooNation Youth Company, where young hopefuls are selected by audition to be trained under a rigorous regime equal to any top ballet school.

This is a joyous night out and deserves its pitch as the flagship summer show at Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Groove On Down The Road and you’ll be grooving right back up the road to keep tabs on each and every one of these performers. Watch this space.

Continues at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre until 1 September. Tickets from £10

Rachel Nouchi is a former dancer and journalist who has written about media and the arts for a range of magazine and newspaper publications from Screen International to the FT.

Photo: Some of the cast of Zoonation’s Groove on Down the Road at Southbank Centre, by Bettina Strenske

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