|Photo: Jeremy Daniel
Remember Baltimore’s Morris A. Mechanic Theatre? Along with the venerable Lyric Opera House it was a centerpiece of theatre in Charm City spanning four decades. Alas, the Mechanic closed its doors in 2004 but not before it was the venue for numerous classic Broadway plays and musicals featuring a ton of iconic, award-winning performers that are too many to list here.
Well, the Mechanic happened to be the locale for the world premiere in October 1974 of the breakthrough musical The Wiz.
Now, nearly a half century later, the seven-time Tony winning musical has launched its pre-Broadway revival, multi-city tour at the more spacious and ornate Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore. Who says you can’t go home again?
The Wiz, with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls (and others) and book by William F. Brown, is based on L. Frank Baum's children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). The music and structure of The Wiz originated with Black creators, directors and an all-Black cast. It was reportedly created as an answer to the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, which had an all-white cast and an opportunity to break through a Broadway culture, which ostensibly was not that receptive to Black creators and performers. Nonetheless, notable productions with African American themes, such as Show Boat, A Raisin in the Sun, and Porgy and Bess preceded The Wiz to Broadway.
The musical, which originally starred Stephanie Mills, spawned several tours, a film in 1978 starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson among others, and a live TV performance in 2015. Using soul, gospel, rock, jazz and 70s funk, the dynamic score augments the story of Dorothy’s journey to find her place in a contemporary world fraught with obstacles and her fervent quest to find her way home.
The top-selling single “Ease On Down The Road” and the gospel-infused “Home” are highlights. But there are plenty of other songs to enjoy including “The Feeling We Once Had,” “Be A Lion,” “We’re Gonna Make It,” and “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.” Some of these are in the showstopper category. And there is plenty of wonderful dancing to add even more life to the songs.
With the dialogue, music styles, choreography and the interactions among the endearing bunch of characters as presented in the revival production, the Black experience and culture are celebrated in a tapestry of light-hearted humor, campiness and powerhouse musical performances. Yet, audiences of all backgrounds and ages will enjoy this work of art.
Given that the original movie The Wizard of Oz, which was later broadcast on television in 1956, has been viewed by so many and is considered one of the greatest films of all time, I am assuming that people are familiar with the fantasy storyline so I will not offer a deep dive into the plot.
"...the entire cast ... is brimming with vivacity and pure talent."
Suffice to say, the coming-of-age saga centers on Dorothy whose house is blown away with her in it during a tornado and winds up in the land of Oz. In order to find her way home, which is her top priority, she is advised to meet the omniscient, mysterious “Wiz” (aka Wizard of Oz) in the Emerald City who can help her return home.
Along the way she encounters a scarecrow in need of a brain; a tin man who lacks a heart; and a lion, which is short on courage—all of whom were put under spells by Evillene, a wicked witch—can also benefit from Wiz’s “powers.” Their adventures en route, especially the confrontation with the wicked witch Evillene, comprise most of the action and fun in the show.
While the contours of the storyline are pretty consistent with the original film, there are some differences including the absence of a yellow brick road, the munchkins, changes to the witches’ names, and there is no Toto—Dorothy’s loveable pooch.
On the night this production was reviewed, the theatre experienced a power snafu that briefly delayed the opening. Undaunted, this production of The Wiz is electric.
Guided by the meticulous direction of Schele Williams, choreography of Jaquel Knight, orchestrations by Joseph Joubert, and an abundantly talented cast, the production’s energy alone could have powered the performance. Thankfully, though, the issue was resolved after 30 minutes.
An amazing set with hue-rich lighting, spectacular costumes and a solid score provide support to the entire cast, which is brimming with vivacity and pure talent. The leads are exceptional especially Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, who will be making her Broadway debut. Expect to hear a lot about her in the future.
As the youthful, homesick and caring Dorothy, Ms. Lewis is phenomenal—both as an actress and vocalist. Dorothy convincingly offers encouragement to the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion and is every bit on board in having their deficiencies repaired by Oz. All the while she is wearing powerful silver slippers that are coveted by Evillene.
Ms. Lewis’ Mezzo-Soprano voice soars throughout all her songs hitting notes that I questioned if ever existed. “Soon As I Get Home,” “Wonder, Wonder Why” and the show’s anthem “Home” are solos that exemplified her singing prowess. She also partnered with other performers in songs that showcase her gift like the repeated “Ease On Down The Road.”
Melody A. Betts is another strong performer, first playing the early role of Aunt Em, a tough but loving role model for Dorothy. Her first name of Melody is apparently no accident; she can sing up a storm, and the tornado happened to occur following her belted out rendition of “The Feeling We Once Had” as part of a duet with Ms. Lewis.
As if Ms. Betts’ talents weren’t enough as Aunt Em, she later played the role of Evillene, one of the wicked witches who desperately wants Dorothy’s silver slippers. In an incredibly amusing scene where the four travelers were dispatched by Oz to kill Evillene in exchange for doing his promised good deeds, Ms. Betts’ comedic skills are as spot-on as her vocals. “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” is fantastic.
Avery Wilson plays quick witted Scarecrow, the first to join Dorothy on her journey. The character might be brainless but Mr. Wilson can sure dance! He’s graceful with powerful, sure-footed moves throughout. He sings well in the comical number “You Can’t Win” with the crows who are supposed to be frightened of him but clearly are not. He also appears in several group numbers including the upbeat “We’re Gonna Make It.”
Sad but hopeful Tin Man, played by Phillip Johnson Richardson, is seeking a heart and also has a comical role. His solo “Slide Some Oil To Me” is a good example of his vocal abilities. He joins his fellow travelers in “What Would I Do If I Can Feel” as well as other numbers.
Kyle Ramar Freeman is particularly proficient as the campy, cowardly Lion. Campy for sure; he uses highlighter in his mane. But he keeps looking for his pride that was taken from him by Evillene. Mr. Freeman possesses an excellent, far-ranging tenor voice, which is evident in “Mean Ole’ Lion” and the phenomenal group number with his travel companions “Be A Lion” that concludes the first act.As the title character, Alan Mingo, Jr. first appears in the second act. A conman’s conman, Wiz feigns powerful abilities in a deal with Evillene to keep the Ozians trapped behind the gates of Emerald City. In a tour de force, Mr. Mingo acts and sings with aplomb and is showcased in “Meet The Wizard” and “Y’all Got It.”
Deborah Cox plays Glinda, one of the good witches, with flair. Her powerful Mezzo-Soprano is evident in “He’s The Wiz” and the stunningly powerful “Believe In Yourself.”
Another notable performer is Allyson Kaye Daniel who plays Addaperle, a funny, sassy witch.
The remainder of the talent cast excels in their vocals and choreography and add much quality to the show. They appear in many scenes and help to bolster the rich score.
If The Wiz were to have an additional co-star, I’d give the title to the scenic designer, Academy Award winner Hannah Beachler. The set and scenery are nothing short of spectacular. The stage is framed with an art deco design but what is between is simply eye-popping. With the use of high-tech effects, projections and colorful scenery plus a wide variety of set pieces, the changing scenes are in perpetual motion. Add to that the brilliant palette of beautiful lights designed by Ryan J. O’Gara that combine so well with the scenery changes.
Sharen Davis designed the stunning costumes—colorful, fanciful, imaginative and functional. I was a little disappointed, however, with the rather bland costumes for Scarecrow and Tin Man. But that minor quibble does not mitigate the fact that The Wiz is a simply gorgeous visual.
Also, Jon Weston’s sound design is flawless keeping the orchestra
and vocalists in perfect blend and
enabling the audience to hear the dialogue clearly.
I had seen The Wizard of Oz numerous times, the film The Wiz, and the TV presentation. I loved these but I love this current iteration most. The performances, the visuals, the staging are all top-notch and pure joy. The underlying message of believing in yourself is powerful and persuasive.
The Wiz is unquestionably going to be a success on the tour, and when it arrives at New York’s Marquis Theatre next April, it is destined to be a smash hit. While in Baltimore, it would be advisable to hurry to buy tickets to this stunning masterpiece as the show eases on down the road across America very soon.
Running time. Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.
The Wiz runs through September 30 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.