Broadway Review: THE WIZ (Marquis Theatre)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on April 28, 2024

in Theater-New York


There’s an old saying that goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But is “fixing” always a bad thing? What if that fix is not about correcting what’s wrong but more about deepening, exploring, and re-emphasizing what’s right? The creative team behind the current Broadway revival of the ’70s hit musical The Wiz, currently wizzing away at the Marquis Theater, must have had some version of this reasoning in mind. Because what’s onstage is not simply a resurrected staging of the original 1975 Tony Winner for Best Musical. Dropped onto Oz is a thoroughly re-imagined, re-contextualized, somewhat deconstructed, gorgeously designed and very 2024 re-telling of the classic story of a spunky Kansas farm girl, inadvertently transported to a magical land, who just wants to get back home. Due to extensive re-working of William F. Brown‘s original book by comedienne/writer Amber Ruffin – this current version centers a displaced Dorothy who is not looking to get back home but is looking for home in the first place. It’s compelling, it’s colorful, it’s somber, it’s hilarious and it’s grounded – even when it’s over the rainbow. It’s not your daddy’s The Wiz – but this entertaining, thoughtful, oddly low-key and funny new production just might be yours (though it helps if you don’t know the original).

Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy & Melody Betts as Aunt Em
 Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy in "Soon as I Get Home"
Keenan D Washington, Maya Bowles, Avilon Trust Tate in "Tornado"

It’s present day and the show opens with Dorothy, an African-American teenage girl, standing in front of a farmhouse, lamenting her fate. Due to tragic circumstances involving her parents, young Dorothy had to leave the city and go live on her Aunt Em’s farm in Kansas. Dorothy does not like her new country landscape and is being bullied by the hick kids at her new high school. She just wants to go back home to the city but that happier household no longer exists. Aunt Em soon comes on, warning of an approaching tornado, and comforts the downcast Dorothy by reminding her of her mother’s saying, “The hard stuff is there just to let you know how good you got it.”

Deborah Cox as Glinda & Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy in "He's the Wiz."
Allyson Kaye Daniel as Addaperle in "He's the Wiz"
Avery Wilson as Scarecrow in "You Can't Win"

And right on cue, the tornado whisks Dorothy and her farmhouse up into the sky, dropping her into the Land of Oz. Not Munchkinland, mind you — the regular-sized inhabitants just refer to their multi-colored, seemingly LSD-meets-Whoville neighborhood as Oz. When Dorothy exits her transported house, there’s already a New Orleans Second Line in progress, replete with umbrellas, to celebrate the death of the Wicked Witch of the East, Evamene, who was killed when Dorothy’s house dropped on her. Soon the beautiful Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, arrives and tells Dorothy she must go to the Emerald City to see the Wizard – as he can help her get back to Kansas. In the meantime, she places Evamene’s magic-infused, silver slippers on Dorothy’s feet, warning her to never take them off.

Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman in "Slide Some Oil to Me."
Kyle Ramar Freeman as The Lion in "Mean Ole Lion"

The confused yet level-headed Dorothy starts on her journey, soon encountering a brainless Scarecrow, a heartless Tinman and a courage-less Lion. These three strangers bond with Dorothy over respective traumas that also separated them from happy family situations. So Dorothy and her new friends trudge along to Emerald City in the hopes of being made whole again. In the meantime, a now constant rain in Oz vexes the water-phobic Evillene aka The Wicked Witch of the West. Turns out her sister Evamene could control the weather with her silver slippers but now that she’s dead, the rain will continue until Evillene recovers her sister’s shoes. Eventually, the travellers reach a decidedly green but afro-futurist Emerald City, which boasts a giant, golden afro-pick reaching up to the sky in the city’s main square, flanked by ascending afro puffs. When the foursome finally meets the Wizard, who is more Vegas headliner than terrifying apparition, he gives them a task. Turns out Evillene’s evilness has created a troubling situation that even affects the citizens of Emerald City. So, clearly, her immediate death would be the answer to everyone’s problems. If the intrepid trio kills Evillene, the Wizard promises, he will grant Dorothy and her companions all their wishes. So what’s a displaced girl (who’s already killed one witch) and her three, equally displaced friends to do?

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

The idea that Dorothy is a city-girl who doesn’t like Kansas and doesn’t have a sense of home is a very unique twist and kudos to Ruffin for taking this angle. The problem is that the original show is about a girl who has a definite home/family ties and desperately wants to return. So there’s often a kind of “square peg in a round hole” feeling when watching this update. Since the songs still reflect the original intent, the lyrics sometimes don’t work coming out of this Dorothy’s mouth. If an unhappy teenager feels she doesn’t have home or connection, wouldn’t Oz be a fun place to hang out for a while? What would be the rush to get back to Kansas?

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

Ruffin has smartly created new backstory for the Scarecrow, Tinman, Lion and Wizard, giving them more compelling and human reasons for wanting the return of a lost brain, heart and courage. She’s also provided a stronger overall arc regarding Evillene that helps tie everyone’s story together, including the Wizard. Yet there are also story inconsistencies throughout: there’s confusion about how long Dorothy’s been in Kansas; Ruffin’s additional material makes it seem she’s a recent arrival yet the lyrics of the warm-hearted “The Feeling We Once Had” (now a duet between Aunt Em and Dorothy) speaks to a mother/child relationship from a very young age. And what city is Dorothy actually from? That’s never stated. Also, does the constant rain only rain on Evillene? The Wicked Witch (and her minions) seem to be the only ones who take notice. Ultimately, Ruffin’s often funny and touching writing can be very specific when it wants, but is also happy to be vague when convenient, leaving an overall story concept that’s not completely worked out.

Collin Heyward, Amber Jackson, Keenan D. Washington, Avilon Trust Tate in "The Emerald City"
"The Emerald City"

However, performances across the board are stellar, especially newcomer Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy. With a powerhouse voice, Lewis’s Dorothy is smarter, less wide-eyed, and stronger than usual. She’s a girl in the midst of some real-world problems and Lewis’s measured trajectory from borderline despair to cautious optimism is well-played. The phenomenally talented trio of Avery Wilson, Philip Johnson Richardson and Kyle Ramar Freeman (Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion respectively) are hilarious and heart-tugging and deliver not only laughs but also some lovely moments of introspection. Melody A. Betts, who begins as Aunt Em, gives us a marvelous Evillene, magically sustaining an impossibly high-pitched level of hair-trigger anger, clowning, belting and malignant narcissism that is a stand-out.

Melody A. Betts as Evillene in "No Bad News"

Being 2024, there’s an “Unapologetically Black” aesthetic that runs throughout this production from its language, comic sensibility and sections of hip-hop influenced dance. For instance, when Dorothy tells Evillene all the things the witch “gotta do” to make things right, Evillene snarkily replies, “All I got to do is stay Black and die.” And there’s also those commemorative T-shirts hilariously being sold on the street at Evamene’s funeral. Even the updated Music Arrangements by Joseph Joubert and Allen Rene Louis eschew some of the Broadway bounce of Charlie Smalls‘ original score, sometimes reworking the songs — including “Everybody Rejoice” by Luther Vandross — to foreground out inherent influences of R&B, jazz, soul, funk, etc. Hannah Beachler’s fanciful sets rely heavily on Daniel Brodie’s effective video and projection, uniting to create a beautifully eye-popping Oz, even if the grandeur sometimes competes with the onstage action. Schele Williams’ confident direction mostly keeps everything clear and focused and her clever staging of the required “click your heels three times” moment is a breath-taking surprise.

Olivia Jackson, Amber Jackson, Shayla Caldwell, Maya Bowles in "Poppies"
Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman and Wayne Brady as The Wiz

It seems the producers did themselves a disservice by naming this production The Wiz. For though it utilizes many elements from the original and is essentially a revival, it is also different enough to be a standalone creation. With songs and story shifted around, fans of the original may have trouble getting into this one. But if they can let go of expectations and relax into this deeper, more layered and often very funny ride towards creating home for oneself – they may just know “how good they got it”.

Wayne Brady as The Wiz
Deborah Cox as Glinda

photos by Jeremy Daniel

Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy in "Home"

The Wiz
Marquis Theatre, 210 W 46th St
opened on April 17, 2024
limited run
for tickets, visit Wiz Musical

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

John May 1, 2024 at 9:46 am

Don’t now what show you saw but I caught this mess at the Pantages just prior to it’s B’Way run. I saw and loved the original show decades ago and my anticipation meter was on high for this revival. Alas there is nothing to recommend this production. It missed the mark at every turn of the tornado. Terrible sets relying on lackluster projections, dull costumes, and with the exception of the Scarecrow’s intro-dance …dull choreography. All the singers, apparently graduates of the School of Loud, sang like they were auditioning for American Idol. Ms Ruffin’s updated book did nothing to advance the cause.


Kevin Vavasseur May 2, 2024 at 2:31 pm

Thanks for your comment. From what you’re describing, it seems the show made changes between its out of town runs and New York opening. And, as I said in the review, fans of the original may have trouble getting into this re-conceived version. Thanks again.


John May 4, 2024 at 11:07 am

From what I understand there weren’t any changes to the show after it left the Pantages. I’m glad you had a much more positive reaction than I did. The audience certainly seemed to love it when I saw it. …and that’s what counts. The 1st Broadway show I saw was in 1969 and hundreds have followed….so perhaps I am a bit more discerning. Most of the NY reviews I read did not like it and said things like “ease on down the National tour” and called it cheesy, dull, unpleasant to look at and a big misstep. Guess that’s what makes a horse race.


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