NOTE: This review was written about the Black Rep production that ran recently at the Grandel Theatre. Because of strong audience response, the production has been extended through July 28 with the following cast changes: J. Samuel Davis is now performing in the title role, Leslie Johnson is portraying the Tin Man and the role of the Scarecrow is now being performed by Alicia Reve.
Story: Dorothy, an impressionable and idealistic girl growing up with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry on a farm in Kansas, finds her life turned upside down, literally, when she is swept away by a tornado. She ends up in a magical kingdom where her house has landed on and killed the Wicked Witch of the East.
Determined to find her way back to Kansas, she takes the advice of Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North, and puts on the silver shoes of the Wicked Witch of the East on her way to the Emerald City, where Addaperle says the mystical Wizard will be able to get her back home. Along her journey on the Yellow Brick Road, she encounters a scarecrow in need of a brain, a tin man yearning for a heart and a cowardly lion desperately seeking courage. Together this quartet of lost souls makes its pilgrimage in the hopes of having their dreams realized.
Highlights: With a book by William F. Brown and music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls, The Wiz is a fanciful retelling of L. Frank Baum’s beloved children’s book from an African-American perspective. The 1975 Broadway debut was nominated for eight Tony Awards and garnered seven, including Best Musical and Best Choreography (by Geoffrey Holder). It ran four years and 1,672 performances.
If memory serves, The Black Rep produced a fine version of The Wiz several years ago. Certainly, this curtain-closer on its 2013 season is a lively, enjoyable, consistently entertaining frolic through the fanciful Land of Oz to the Emerald City, awash in fine performances, lively dancing and an energetic pace courtesy of director and Black Rep founder and producing director Ron Himes.
Other Info: Himes has dialed up the talent meter for this free-wheeling interpretation, including the Black Rep debut of Broadway star Cedric Neal in the title role. Neal, bathed in lighting designer Sean Savoie’s mysterious green lighting and omnipresent vocally through sound designer Chad Finnan’s impressive echo machine, is a sure-footed and velvet-tongued Wizard who can instill fear in his dutiful charges, yet also charm the patrons with the moving ballad, Believe in Yourself and the up-tempo piece, Y’All Got It!
Not to be outdone, charismatic Sarah Stephens as Dorothy shows her expertise with comedy in her banter with the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, as well as joining the ensemble for plenty of smooth moves to Cecil Slaughter’s enchanting choreography and belting out an inspiring version of the powerful ballad, Home.
Her sister, Sophia Stephens, is no slouch herself, showcasing her own beautiful voice as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, near the show’s finale on the soulful ballad, A Rested Body Is a Rested Mind. Black Rep artistic associate Linda Kennedy is a hoot as the upbeat and slightly addlebrained Addaperle, while Daniel Hodges is amusing to watch as The Wiz’s officious Gatekeeper and as the oxymoronic Lord High Underling, leader of deference to the imperious Wicked Witch of the West, Evillene.
The latter is portrayed in grand villainous style by Raphaelle Darden, who struts and sasses the comic number, No Bad News, from her perch overlooking her menials at the start of Act II. Nakischa Joseph gets the show started with a noble turn as Aunt Em extolling the virtues of farm life on the ballad, The Feeling We Once Had.
Of course, what would any version of The Wizard of Oz be without Dorothy’s faithful comrades? Ian Coulter-Buford’s lithe and limber body makes for a fluid Scarecrow and he complements that physicality with a genial outlook and wise-cracking humor.
Keith Tyrone displays his own dancing prowess and easy way with a glib line as the upbeat Tin Man, while Herman Gordon makes the most of his opportunities as the cowardly Lion, King of the False Bravado Jungle on the amusing number Mean Ole Lion but a timid kitty cat in the heat of battle.
Familiar tunes such as Ease on Down the Road are given high-stepping, spirited renditions by Himes and Slaughter, ably elevated by music director Charles Creath and his smooth combo consisting of William Ranier on bass, guitarist Dennis Brock and drummer Chris Boyd, with Creath at the keyboard.
The band is hidden behind scenic designer Dunsi Dai’s fanciful set, awash in a rainbow of resplendent colors to bring home that ‘Oz’ feeling, which is accentuated throughout by a festive array of costumes designed by Sarita Fellows.
Although it drags noticeably a couple of times in Act I, most of this excursion along the Yellow Brick Road is fun-filled, family entertainment. Ease on down the road to the Grandel Theatre and check it out yourself.
Musical: The Wiz
Company: The Black Rep
Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
Dates: July 18, 19, 20, 21, 25, 26, 27, 28
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Stewart Goldstein