Bay Area Theater Preview: THE WIZ (Berkeley Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on July 13, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

EASE ON DOWN

A fascinating phenomenon has occurred recently in the theater world for this critic. Far and away, my favorite theatergoing experiences have been at revivals of musicals, most of which have been rarely produced. Some were staged concert Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Bay Area preview of “The Wiz” – Berkeley Playhouse at the Julia Morgan Theater.performances, such as I Can Get It for You Wholesale, Harold Rome’s 1962 take on a nefarious guy in the schmatte business (and the show that introduced an unknown Barbra Streisand to Broadway), at a tiny theater in Chicago; and Mack & Mabel, Jerry Herman’s Broadway flop of 1974, at Musical Theatre West in Long Beach, CA. Other revivals were fully staged productions, from storefront (the original 1940 version of Pal Joey) to midsize (the 1980 circus-styled romp Barnum) to a large house (Kurt Weill & Ogden Nash’s 1943 One Touch of Venus).

Fascinatingly, all of the aforementioned musicals have problem librettos (or “books” if you’re a Tony voter). The reasons are many: Either there is an unlikeable lead character or uncompelling storytelling or a schizophrenic tone or it’s just plain silly. Yet I enjoyed each one. Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Bay Area preview of “The Wiz” – Berkeley Playhouse at the Julia Morgan Theater.Why? Each musical has respectable to extraordinary songs, and the productions I witnessed were just plain fun.

This brings me to The Wiz, which opens this week in a production directed by Kimberly Dooley for Berkeley Playhouse. Yeah, it has a troubled book which is continually being rewritten (San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse successfully revised the show in 2006), but there are killer songs which now feel like a perfect pastiche of 1970s pop, soul and gospel, and the 1975 musical is, well, just plain fun. The show will run through August 25 at the historic Julia Morgan Theatre in Berkeley. Only a tornado should keep you from seeing this rarely produced show.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Bay Area preview of “The Wiz” – Berkeley Playhouse at the Julia Morgan Theater.Based on an audacious idea by a music-business man named Ken Harper, librettist William F. Brown rewrote L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as an all-black, soulful rendering as far removed from the classic MGM film as is imaginable. Oh, it’s basically the same story with Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion and Witches good and bad, but Brown used ghetto street argot to update the tale, while composer Charlie Smalls wrote a funk-filled score with soul-style disco and a mash-up of Motown and Broadway ballads.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Bay Area preview of “The Wiz” – Berkeley Playhouse at the Julia Morgan Theater.The show was stylish, energetic, vibrantly colored and wackily imaginative – thanks to director and costumer Geoffrey Holder – with killer dancing by George Faison. There was also some truly funny dialogue and tunes both heartwarming and inspiring, such as “Home” and “If You Believe.” While my favorite is “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” a gospel-infused lament from the Bad Witch, Evilene, “Everybody Rejoice,” the jubilant answer to her demise, actually became the source of a commercial jingle – but with little wonder. That song, a.k.a. “Brand New Day,” was actually written for The Wiz by Luther Vandross, who cut his composing teeth with 1970s jingles for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Juicy Fruit.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Bay Area preview of “The Wiz” – Berkeley Playhouse at the Julia Morgan Theater.The likeable elements caused good word of mouth for the groundbreaking musical when it hit Broadway in 1975, but it was met with shaky critical reception and even shakier business, mostly because of Brown’s libretto, which couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be; it was naïve, Burlesque, a parody and a comedy, but not rolled into one. So Harper (who also produced and considered closing the show after opening night) accepted a last-minute financial save from 20th Century Fox, which mounted a TV campaign, plugging “Ease on Down the Road” into a hit single. Eight weeks later, The Wiz found an enthusiastic audience – many of whom (African-Americans and youngsters) had probably never been to a Broadway show. The musical went on to win seven Tony Awards: Best Musical, Score (Smalls), Director and Costume Design (Holder), Choreographer (Faison), Supporting Actor (Ted Ross as the Lion) and Supporting Actress (Dee Dee Bridgewater as Glinda). With all of these awards and the public’s love affair with Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, The Wiz closed in 1979 after four years and 1,672 performances.

By the way, how smart was 20th Century Fox to sell the movie rights after they made millions on their investment? Universal Picture’s 1978 movie fled on down the road to ruin and died beneath the rainbow. Motown’s Barry Gordy OK’d Universal’s Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Bay Area preview of “The Wiz” – Berkeley Playhouse at the Julia Morgan Theater.decision to cast Diana Ross as Dorothy, and Joel Schumacher ditched Brown’s awkward libretto, but then wrote an unfixable script based on the teachings of “est” seminars (seems like everyone involved with the movie went to the wrong training). No need to wonder anymore why Dorothy is an older schoolteacher from Harlem in the film. But you can wonder forever why Sidney Lumet was hired as the director.

The production at hand will feature a huge ensemble utilizing two alternating youth casts which were trained in The Berkeley Playhouse Conservatory. Berkeley Playhouse returnees include Benjamin Pither (Lion), Aejay Mitchell (Scarecrow), Sarah Mitchell (Evilene), and soul singer, recording artist, and featured soloist at Glide Memorial Church, Vernon Bush, who will star as the Wiz. Making their Berkeley Playhouse debuts are Taylor Jones as Dorothy and Amy Lizardo as Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North. Tal Ariel provides musical direction and Ms. Dooley will choreograph.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Bay Area preview of “The Wiz” – Berkeley Playhouse at the Julia Morgan Theater.Berkeley Playhouse will partner with Habitat for Humanity during the run. For 37 years, Habitat has built more than 400,000 homes all over the world, often rebuilding entire communities after natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the tornados in Oklahoma. The Playhouse will host a “Nickels for Nails” fund drive throughout the run, and those associated with the show will volunteer to help build homes in Oakland this summer. Additionally, patrons who donate to the drive will receive 10-20% off tickets, and those who volunteer their time with Habitat for Humanity will receive free ticket offers from Berkeley Playhouse. Families that Habit has recently, or is currently helping, will also be invited to attend performances of The Wiz.

Clearly for the Berkeley Playhouse, there is no place like home.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Bay Area preview of “The Wiz” – Berkeley Playhouse at the Julia Morgan Theater.

production photos by Ken Levin

The Wiz
Berkeley Playhouse
Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley
scheduled to end on August 25, 2013
Wednesday-Thursday at 7pm; Saturday at 2pm, 7pm; Sunday at 12pm, 5pm
for tickets, call (510) 845-8542, ext. 351 or visit http://www.berkeleyplayhouse.org

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