Theater Review: THE WIZ (Pre-Broadway Tour)

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by Dan Zeff on January 11, 2024

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-New York,Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area,Tours


The large opening night audience at the San Diego Civic Theatre last night seemed to be having a good time watching the the musical revival of The Wiz, in town through Sunday before a pre-Broadway national tour (the show opens March 29 at the Marriott Marquis). I wish I could share their pleasure, but I thought the evening was a disappointing misfire.

Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy & Melody Betts as Aunt Em

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 in 1975 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 and a large dose of Black humor 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, tunes both heartwarming and inspiring, such as “Home,” “If You Believe,” and “(Don’t Nobody Bring Me) No Bad News,” a gospel-infused lament from the Bad Witch, Evillene, “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.

Deborah Cox as Glinda & Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy in "He's The Wiz."

The likeable elements (including Geoffrey Holder’s wackily imaginative direction and killer dancing by George Faison) 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 were African-Americans and youngsters who 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.

Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion, Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy,
Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman, Avery Wilson as Scarecrow

I saw a road version a few years ago and thought it was an irresistible blend of singing, dancing and sassy Black comedy. But regrettably, aside from a brilliant starring performance in the leading role, the current production mostly doesn’t work.

Alan Mingo Jr. as The Wiz

You know the basic story: Dorothy, a girl living in rural Kansas with her Aunt Em, is carried away by a tornado into the land of Oz where she meets the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Cowardly Lion. They bond to follow the Yellow Brick Road to the city of Oz in an attempt to meet the mysterious and all-powerful Wizard and ask him to grant one wish to each of them, including returning Dorothy to her home in Kansas. Along the way, they battle the nasty witch Evillene.

Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman

There is one major reason to see the present production, a spectacular all-around performance by Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy. Lewis has the physical look of a young girl with the voice, acting chops, dancing skills, and all-around stage presence of a superstar, a status she should achieve based on her brilliance here. Also deserving commendation is Kyle Ramar Freeman who, as the Cowardly Lion, manages to inject some feeling and laughs to embellish his potent voice. In addition, there is strong singing from Deborah Cox as the Good Witch, Alan Mingo, Jr. as the Wiz, Philip Johnson Richardson as the Tinman, and Avery Wilson as the Scarecrow.

Melody Betts as Evillene in "No Bad News"

The cast deserves our respect for giving their all in a staging by Schele Williams that is visionless and too loud (sound design by Jon Weston) and suffers from a flailing book (which has been repeatedly rewritten since 1975, with Amber Ruffin contributing new material for this version). The character of Evillene should be a scene stealer but Melody Betts is saddled with a bellowing part that buries the character’s droll wit in an interminable second-act scene that includes watching several underlings being cast into a fiery furnace. Creepy! The act begins with choreographer JaQuel Knight‘s extended dance number in the Emerald City (music by Timothy Graphenreed), which contributes nothing to a narrative that urgently needs filling out.

Avery Wilson as Scarecrow in "You Cant Win"

The visual production has plenty of fancy lighting by Ryan J. O’Gara, colorful costumes by Sharen Davis, fanciful wigs (Charles G. LaPointe) and make-up (Kirk Cambridge-Del Pesche), and inventive special effects (sets by Hannah Beachler; projection design by Daniel Brodie), but they don’t sufficiently meld into the story’s charming fairy tale world (there are no munchkins here, just “townspeople”).

"The Emerald City" from The Wiz

All in all, I entered the theater jacked up with anticipation and departed feeling let down. What is perhaps most disheartening is the abundance of genuine performing talent on display, along with the ample budget. This is not a show presented on the cheap. But in the planning stage, the decision apparently was reached to create a new production and largely discard the successful previous version. Talk about trying to fix a show that’s not broke!

Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion & Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy in "Be A Lion"

photos by Jeremy Daniels

The Wiz
pre-Broadway national tour
reviewed at the San Diego Civic Theater, 1100 Third Avenue
for tickets (beginning at $44), visit BroadwaySD
ends on January 14, 2024; tour then plays San Francisco and Los Angeles
opens at the Marriott Marquis Theatre in New York City on March 29, 2024
for tickets and more info, visit Wiz Musical

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

That Topping Dude January 12, 2024 at 1:09 pm

Well, theoretically, this is what out-of-town tryouts are for. Hope they get their shite together before they hit Broadway!


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