Tichina Arnold, Ashanti, Raymond Bennett, Tanya Birl, Darlesia Cearcy, Asmeret Ghebremichael, Angela Grovey, Ebony Haswell, Joshua Henry, James Monroe Iglehart, Lauren Lim Jackson, Orlando Jones, LaChanze, Carl Lation, Maurice Lauchner, Dawnn Lewis, Jennifer Locke, Amy McClendon, Kenna Morris, John Eric Parker, Herman Payne, Ryan Rankine, Levensky Smith, Ephraim Sykes, Adrienne Warren, Daniel J. Watts, Christian White, Juson Williams, Will Wingfield
In late December of 1974, The Wiz made a somewhat dangerous landing on Broadway.
After limping in from a complicated tryout, it relied on African-American church groups, whimsical staging and, most importantly, a well-timed TV commercial to mold it into the successful musical it was.
Along the way, two original stars (Butterfly McQueen was one of them), the original director, choreographer and costume designer were replaced.
If City Center wishes to transfer this production to Broadway, they could take a page out of the original’s book. The best thing to be said about their current revival is that it’s fast-paced and the cast do a mostly terrific job with some very poor direction and choreography.
The worst thing that can be said about it is some fairly poor direction and choreography keep the production from reaching it’s full potential.
Ashanti does an admirable job in her first theatrical outing. Her lack of acting skills works fairly well for her playing a little girl lost in a fantastical world full of talking lions and wicked witches. She handles the score very nicely, which is more than can be said for some pop stars who grace the New York stage.
Orlando Jones, the second of the over-the-title stars, has the acting chops, but not the vocals. His Wiz is a more charming, suave character than a menacing one, which helps make him more sleazy yet sympathetic. However, his singing leaves something to be desired. He sounds much better on his second act song Y’all Got It, however his So You Wanted to Meet The Wizard? was less that stellar and more than flat.
LaChanze, the least well-known member above the title is the best of the three. She commands the stage both as Aunt Em and Glinda, two roles that basically only need a warm body with a voice to sell. However, she is more than a warm body, she is beautifully loving as Aunt Em, and slightly sexy as an Eartha Kitt-esque Glinda. She stops the show with both of her ballads, and puts over the mostly pointless A Rested Body Is A Rested Mind with such little effort that you almost wish she would do it as a one-woman show.
Christian White, Joshua Henry and James Monroe Iglehart as the three friends are fantastic from a vocal and acting standpoint. They know their roles and are, in some ways, the stars of the show. The dancing for them, however, is less than good. While White and Henry are talented dancers, neither of their pieces really takes off.
As the other two witches, Tichina Arnold and Dawnn Lewis are campy, funny and delicious. They both have the vocals and personalities to sell their songs, and they have more than enough acting skills for their limited scene work.
The minimalistic sets of David Korins work fantastically well for the piece, and the lighting by Ken Billington, when used properly, is quite effective. There is some work to be done on Paul Tazewell’s costumes. While the core group of seven are all costumed well, his ensemble members look like rejects from the Chicago revival. The Kalidah Battle is nearly laughable thanks to the strange Koosh ball costumes, and his Winged Monkeys are oddly wingless.
Andy Blankenbuehler did some terrific work on In the Heights, however what worked for that doesn’t work here. The Wiz has been turned into an over-choreographed urban playground that distracts from the performances. The Tornado sequence is a mess. While it isn’t important that Toto doesn’t travel to Oz with Dorothy, it would be nice to see them enter the storm cellar. The piece doesn’t come to life until until the last few moments when the house breaks apart and flies around Dorothy. Equally dismal are every other dance number which is full of moments where you don’t know where to focus, and that distract from the main plotline.
The Wiz is pretty structured so that the book is usually only a few lines between songs, making most of the direction revolve around entrances and exits. This is where Kail fails to make an impression. None of the witches get great entrances. Addaperle’s are terribly anti-climactic, Glinda’s is fine but no wow effect, and Evillene’s exit is a terribly covered mess. Even The Wiz himself merely walks on.
Therein lies much of this production’s problem. Between the mixed performances, over-choreography and wasted entrances, there is absolutely no magic in the performance at all. Never once do I truly believe this world of Oz is a fairyland instead of a strange night club.
On a whole, the production is great for what it is, a three-week, mostly staged concert version of a musical. However, if the transfer that is rumored is to happen, it needs some major re-working.