By Lynn Venhaus
What a wonderful, wonderful “The Wiz” this is! Colorful and creative, this snazzy update of the 1975 Tony musical winner has a cool dance-party vibe that draws everyone in quickly.
A rainbow of vibrant color pops on every corner of the stage in a spunky swirl of step and funky costumes while Emerald City glows.
Director Denis Jones and Music Director Darryl Archibald, who wrote new orchestrations, have infused this rumination on home, destiny and determination with boundless heart and soul.
Based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 classic “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” “The Wiz” is a reimagined journey, with a clever take on the familiar tale we know so well, but from a modern African-American cultural perspective.
The unique Broadway show, which debuted in 1974, was billed as the “Super Soul Musical,” and featured an all-black cast. It was not a tribute show, but a proud production that the cast owned with great verve, earning seven Tony Awards.
The 1978 movie starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson has become a cult classic and the 2015 highly-rated live musical version on NBC introduced more fans to the beloved tale.
This lively journey hasn’t been staged at the Muny since 1982. And voila — they have swept away the creaky jokes and that unmistakable presence of 1970s hipness to present a bright, brisk and rousing mash-up of contemporary references and catchy rock, gospel and soul rhythms.
Yes, the 1970s were a very different time. However, the Muny’s Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson recognized a need to make-over the book and score, and received permission.
Composer Charlie Smalls’ son was on board with it. Smalls composed most of the numbers, although Timothy Graphenreed, Harold Wheeler, George Faison and Luther Vandross contributed.
So was book writer William F. Brown. Additional material had been written by Tina Tippit. The Muny asked Amber Ruffin to write additional material for this specific show.
This new improved version burns bright with a young dynamo in the leading role of Dorothy – winsome Danyel Fulton — and this buoyant contemporary script freshened by Ruffin, an exceptional young writer.
The Emmy-nominated Ruffin, who writes and performs on “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” is the only female black writer working on a late-night talk show. Her rewrite has given Dorothy more strength and purpose, so that when Danyel learns she has the power within, you feel it – and believe.
Fulton was a knockout in the finale “Home,” displaying even more impressive power. She is immediately likable in the early “Soon As I Get Home.”
The show is funny, too. Ruffin also spiffed up the humor, bringing it into the 21st Century. Her jokes land, even some corny ones.
The entire creative team has made this a special experience, filled with good cheer and heartfelt performances.
Scenic Designer Edward E. Haynes Jr. has splashed color everywhere, and his shapes take on an animated quality that’s playful and fun.
Using that animated theme too, costume designer Leon Dobkowski caught our eagle eyes by mixing up a carnival showroom with practical athletic wear, with nods to the nostalgia of the source material. The lively array was another appealing factor, as was the outstanding wig design work by Leah J. Loukas.
Their bright-red collaboration on the Poppies scene was memorable. And those wacky flying monkeys have their own number, “Funky Monkeys.”
Another kind of spirit came from visionary Choreographer Camille A. Brown, Tony nominee for the Best Musical Revival winner “Once Upon This Island,” who also choreographed NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” on Easter Sunday.
In her first Muny work, she has created a stunning panoply of dances: a unique “Tornado Ballet,” a flashy quartet who fill in as the Yellow Brick Road, and a fun “Emerald City House Party” among them. Zane Mark wrote additional dance music.
The vigorous dance troupe features a number of Muny rookies but well-versed in Brown’s ingenious choreography, and they captivate every moment.
The two showiest starring roles are Nathan Lee Graham as the flamboyant Wizard, aka The Wiz, and brassy E. Faye Butler as both the feared villain Evillene and the sweet-but-sassy good witch Addaperle. She’s seasoned with a bit of Eartha Kitt and a pinch of Pearl Bailey’s “Dolly Levi.”
Butler grabs the spotlight with gusto, notably in “He’s the Wizard” and ‘No Bad News” while Graham is fiery in “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard” and “Y’All Got It.”
Those two know how to command a stage, sashaying with glee in glamorous and outrageous outfits. Graham, a Webster Conservatory graduate, was reminiscent of James Brown and Little Richard, with a dash of Prince, in showmanship.
The only drawback was that the weather combination of high heat, humidity and pop-up thunderstorms, and that resulting dampness, made them a little hoarse and hard to hear at times on opening night Tuesday. Yet they powered through, as did everyone, after a 75-minute rain delay. Start time was around 9:30 p.m. for the nearly 7,000 who stayed.
The goofy Cowardly Lion, played zestily by Darius de Haas, also was a tad scratchy, but he had the audience spellbound, entertaining in “Mean Ole Lion” and “Be a Lion.”
Traditionally, the Lion and the sunny Scarecrow, another zippy performance from agile Jared Grimes, seem to get more attention. And Grimes shines in “You Can’t Win” and “On the Day Before Yesterday.”
But James T. Lane is the stand-out as the kind, soulful Tinman. Not only was he sensational in his dances, especially in the introductory “Slide Some Oil to Me,” but moving in “If I Could Feel.”
Demetria McKinney is noteworthy as Aunt Em, beautifully delivering the first song, “The Feeling We Once Had,” and gorgeous in her dazzling Glinda outfit, inspiring Dorothy to “Believe in Yourself.”
The big numbers, “Brand New Day” and “Ease on Down the Road,” are as crowd-pleasing as ever.
Special notes to lighting designer Rob Denton, sound designer John Shivers and David Patridge, and video designer Greg Emetaz. Their work enhanced this production enormously, and the LED screen added much to this iconic tale.
This pleasant good-hearted show should make everyone smile – and shake your groove thing – on the way home.
“The Wiz” runs nightly from June 19 to June 25 at 8:15 p.m. at The Muny in Forest Park. For more information, visit www.muny.org.
Muny photos by Phil Hamer