Hopefully, their latest summer production, a revival of The Wiz, will have the pleasure of a similar fate, despite Charles Isherwood’s less than charitable review in the Times. Directed by the talented Thomas Kail, who also directed In the Heights, musical directed by Alex Lacamoire (who also did In the Heights), and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler (currently represented on Broadway by 9 to 5), the production teems with talent and energy, offering a dazzling evening of great fun from a talented, infectiously delighted cast.
Even though the show was first produced in the 1975, this production didn’t smell a whiff out of date. Some of the language, on closer scrutiny, might seem anachronistic. A few bon mots suspiciously close to “here comes the Judge” are rattled off by an earnest cast that’s fully behind them, never pausing for a moment to be suspicious or snobby about the phrasing’s provenance (this despite the fact that many of the cast probably weren’t alive in the 70s).
Kail, himself a young
Perhaps because it was first produced in the 70s, when feminism was very much in the air, women dominate the musical.
Addaperle’s number, “He’s the Wizard,” promises that Dorothy will find her way home with his assistance, which begins her quest. But since we know the story, it’s the song’s delivery, and Lewis’s interpretation of Addaperle as sweet, well-meant, but addled that makes the number such fun. (Like a failed student at Hogworth’s, she can’t get her wand to work.)
Paul Tazewell’s imaginative, campy costume design—along with the hair and wig design by Charles G. Lapointe and makeup design by Cookie
Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (Tichina Arnold) also sings a show-stopping number, for which she dons the fabulously red, richly textured and layered outfit of a modern-day devil, wearing a tight-fitting body suit in a red and black paisley print, over which she pulls a hoop skirt, half covered with a fringey dress, topped by a red and black wig styled in long curly dreads. The whole campy effect gives her a devil-may-care-if-I’m-a-devil attitude that
LaChanze has the pleasure of the first and the penultimate number in The Wiz, first as Auntie Em, singing a maternal ode to her niece as she hangs laundry on the clothesline while that foreboding wind kicks up. Even wearing Auntie Em’s shapeless housedress, LaChanze is a riveting presence with the best voice in the cast. When she returns as Glinda, wearing a diaphanous sky-blue gown with a silken turban wrapped around her head, LaChanze is luminous, glowing with the promise that if Dorothy believes in herself (as Glinda’s song goes), she’ll get home to Kansas and control her own destiny. LaChanze puts over the anthem to 1970s-style self-actualization like she’s announcing the one true religion. How can Dorothy not get back to
She’s cute and earnest but bland, and lacks that glowing musical theatre-person presence that her co-stars exude.
Orlando Jones, as the Wiz himself, is intermittently effective, handsome in his bedazzled emerald coat and fantasy make-up when the wizard deploys shock and awe, and later, unapologetically matter-of-fact about his fall from power. He’s charming at the end as he goes about solving everyone’s problems, making each of the principles happy but Dorothy, whom he leaves on the ground as his hot air balloon takes off (or here, is blown sideways offstage) without her.
Dorothy doesn’t return to
But these minor defects don’t mar what’s otherwise an entertaining evening. Blankenbuehler’s terrific choreography evokes the story’s high drama. The black-clad dancers embody the tornado in a stunning coup-de-theatre. They fly about t he stage, putting their arms through the shirts hanging on Auntie Em’s line and wreaking havoc with her house. The set, designed by David Korins, comes apart creatively; the dancers create the damage of gusting winds by uprooting each piece of the house and planting them in odd parts of the stage, as if the weather explodes Dorothy’s home into its constituent parts.
The dancers’ choreography accomplishes many of the set changes. They create the yellow-brick road by appearing with small suitcases painted in a brick-like pattern that they put together like blocks, passing them under the feet of the actors as they “ease on down the road” to Oz. Dancers comprise the dangerous poppy field, twirling around the principles in form-fitting green sheaths and wearing bright red fright wigs.
As the munchkins, they sit on rolling chairs that halve their height, and wear hoop-skirt costumes that cover their bodies from chin to toe, while extravagant Koosh-ball shower caps adorn their heads. The flying monkeys, who get a kind of Michael Jackson Thriller treatment, threaten the company with their sinister moves.
And Toto, of course, is adorable.
The audience loved the high energy production the night I attended (a preview performance on 6/13/09). In the Bush years, the failed wizard might have been reminiscent of W., with his empty insistence on missions accomplished, and the sham promises of a few last left-over miracles that never transpire. But by this production’s end, the Wiz sounds more like Obama as he delivers his gentle, yes-you-can moral, the everything-you-need-is-within-yourself boosterism on which The Wiz, like The Wizard of Oz before it, stakes its happy ever after claim.
In a production like this one, though, watching the talented ensemble tell the old story, the moral feels a lot more like yes-WE-can. That works for me.
The Feminist Spectator