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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The faithful to the book 1939 movie with its hit parade of songs further embedded Baum's fairy tale into our cultural vocabulary. But it took The Wiz, to give this beloved story a new universality in 1975 by retelling the story of Dorothy and Baum's wonderful characters from an African-American perspective and to a rock and soul beat.
Despite initially mixed reviews, The Wiz won seven Tonys and ran for over four years. Encores!—- true to its title— is giving audiences a chance to revisit this show or see it for the first time. With the same director (Thomas Kail), choreographer (Andy Blankenbuehler) and music director (Alex Lacamoire) who nurtured In the Heights, another musical broadening the once white-dominated theatrical landscape this revival still jumps with energy. Enough of its oe sings have sufficient pep and soul to have survived their 1970s heyday.
In keeping with Encores! tradition, the band is on stage but Dorothy's trip from her aunt and uncle's twister-savaged Kansas farm to the Emerald City is more slickly deluxe than either the "regular" concert or the previous Summer Stars productions. The Broadway-style lighting, costumes and elaborate choreography seem to scream transfer me the way you did last year's Gypsy. However, this is hardly a Gypsy caliber musical classic (a previous attempt to bring The Wiz back to Broadway in 1984 was a 13-performance flop). For all the glitz and high energy choreography and catchy, well sung tunes, this revival ultimately isnt quite robust enough to reprise its initial success. Call it a case of too much of everything. Too busy. Too loud. Too overstaged.
That said, all the characters that have endeared the little girl blown out of her Kansas home by a tornado to an Alice in Wonderland style adventure are there: The good and bad witches, magical silver slippers, the Scarecrow who yearns for a brain, the Tinman seeking a heart and the Lion who wishe to be less cowardly, as she yearns for home, the less than wizardly wizard— not to mention colorful dancing Munchkins, Poppies and Field Mice. And so, lYou see, whether told from a White or African-American viewpoint, the Wizard of Oz story relies on its Dorothy to give it the emotional warmth and charm that has won audiences for over a century. Pop star Ashanti is mighty pretty and can sing all right but her acting makes you wish the casting had been less motivated by her multiple Grammy award-winning box office appeal.
Fortunately, the Scarecrow (Christian Dante White), Tinman (Joshua Henry), Cowardly Lion (James Monroe Iglehart) are wonderfully endearing, each a distinctive personality. Henry's wistful "If I Could Feel" is one of the show's standouts. Even Nigel the Cairn Terrier who plays Dorothy's beloved Toto with aplomb (you can't blame him from seeming over eager to escape from Dorothy's arms since Ashanti is no more able to connect emotionally with him than any of the other characters).
The three witches (Dawn Lewis as Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North; Tina Arnold as Evilene, The Wicked Witch Of The West; and La Chanze, doubling as Glinda the Good Witch of the South and as Aunt Em) also excel on all accounts. Tichina Arnold, a favorite with fans of TV's Everybody Hates Chris is also a big hit as the oh-so glamorous, exuberantly nasty Evillene Her "No Bad News", had people jumping out of their seats cheering and clapping. Credit the superb La Chance for the most nuanced rendition of both her roles. Perhaps her penultimate Glinda solo, "Believe in Yourself," has been enough of an inspiration to make the inexperienced Ashanti be quite good in her final and best number, " Home."
The one other weak link in the cast is Orlando Jones as the Wizard. Part of this is the book which gives him some of the creakier lines, but while Paul Tazewell has attired Jones as snazzily as all the other fantastical figures, there's nothing remotely fantastical or mysterious about his Wiz. Nevertheless, the wizard scenes do have some deft touches, as when some of the Wizard's Emerald City subjects serve as his throne and his unsurprising exposé does give us the snappy "Who Do You Think You Are?"
If this African-American pride boosting adaptation still suffers from a somewhat pedestrian book, it's timely in that it's happily become less of a groundbreaker than one more chapter in our increasingly diverse theater history, with all manner of cross-cultural shows following in its footsteps. And if Mr. Kail's helming isn't quite in a league with Geoffrey Holder's, this isn't Oz, and unlike, Dorothy, you can't always go home again.