Ease on Down the Road to “The Wiz”
All images by Dan Norman, courtesy of Children's Theatre Co.
While “The Wiz” doesn’t start out in a literal black-and-white Kansas like its Judy Garland predecessor does, it makes the color difference very clear with the over-saturated munchkins and their three-foot high hair that peer out at Dorothy’s crash landing in Oz—erm, Coney Island. The Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) and Penumbra Theatre’s “The Wiz” leans in favor toward CTC’s audience, so expect simple laughs, animated acting and, at least for this show, song-to-song pacing. But this is also the same CTC that was the first young person’s theater to win a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater, and with the partnership of nationally acclaimed African American theater company Penumbra, expect to be wowed by phenomenal singing, sincere numbers and a vibrant world Jan. 23-March 18 onstage at the CTC.
“The Wiz” is, as you might think, a re-making of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” setting the dreamy story to funk, rock and soul music with an all-African American cast. As the two theater companies brought their strengths together, they also brought some of the songs from both the musical and the film versions of “The Wiz.” My personal favorite song was from the film side of things—Dwight Leslie plays a boogaloo-esque class-clowning, scarecrow, a perfect fit to pull off the toe-tapping “You Can’t Beat It.”
To me, that whole number encompassed everything I loved about the musical. It showed off how well-cast the performers were, both as singers and character fit. It gave a glimpse of the strong vision costume designer Mathew LeFabvre brought to his costumes with leather-studded, mohawked crows and a scarecrow in a tracksuit and an upside-down Chinese takeout box hat. The melody had the full backing of the well-balanced pit orchestra that kept things swinging throughout the two hours.
Don’t mistake me—you’ll see all of those elements throughout the musical. Dennis W. Spears plays the Tinman with the bemusement of a gruff old timer on the adventure of his life. To complete Dorothy's traveling companions, Rudolph Searles III embodies his role as the Cowardly Lion with his song, “Be a Lion.” (The song is also a welcome readjustment after a confusing moment on the Yellow Brick Road when they’re attacked by a gang whose explanation was here and gone.)
“The Wiz” bookends with two powerhouse pieces, Greta Oglesby’s song as Aunt Em, “The Feeling That We Have” (Oglesby also plays the wicked witch of the west, Evillene), and Paris Bennett as Dorothy with “Home.” On more musically demanding pieces like “Home,” it becomes clear Bennett is a 2006 American Idol top five finalist and is not a Kansas tween of indiscriminate age, but no one minds the smoke and mirrors lifting as she hits her notes.
Director Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director emeritus of Penumbra, also added another dimension of African American culture to “The Wiz” by having Dorothy land in Coney Island instead of Munchkin Land and making her destination an emeralded Harlem. According to the press release the Children’s Theatre Co. sent out, this was to reflect the Great Migration that many African Americans made from the south to the north during the Reconstruction period.
This concept gets a little lost in the execution—the blatant signs for Coney Island and the Apollo Theater were helpful, but the script’s use of both the orthodox destinations and the new ones cancel each other out. Scenic designer Vicki Smith adds a MapQuest-style backdrop to the “Ease on Down the Road” travel interludes—love those Yellow Brick Road chorus members—but even that geographic grounding gets a little lost behind the set and cast. Still, it’s the thought that counts, and even without that touch, you could definitely pick up historical parallels when the workers Evillene enslaved shed their old garments and emerged, dancing and harmonizing about freedom and a “Brand New Day.” (What they could have considered updating was the Scarecrow's gift, but that's another debate to have.)
So yes, there’s a lot you can say about “The Wiz.” There are many shining moments that come together in an exuberant, bow-tied package. And, as evidenced by the peals of laughter and giggles I heard from the younger ones in the audience, it 100 percent works. For adults going with family or for adults who came because of the acclaim that both the 1974 musical and the theater companies command, it may be a little more difficult to call it a show that is both moving and fun, but it is nothing if not a show that is both fun and bursting with talent.