By Jeff Ritter
“The Wiz,” an African-American musical adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s book “The Wizard of Oz,” landed on The Muny stage with some natural special effects courtesy of Mother Nature.
Cool breezes after thunderstorms made for perfect outdoor theatre weather once the rain was dried off the seats. The weather neither dampened the performers’ gusto nor the audience’s appreciation of this resurgent musical.
Originally adapted in 1974 and turned into a box office failure (and eventual cult classic), the film in 1978 starring Dianna Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russel and Richard Pryor.
”The Wiz” doesn’t vary too far from the usual “Wizard of Oz” stage plot. Dorothy Gale (Danyel Fulton) is a Kansas orphan in the care of her Aunt Em (Demetria McKinney) and Uncle Henry (Rhaamell Burke-Missouri).
After her little dog Toto (Nessa) runs off, a tornado whips through their homestead and Dorothy finds herself atop the remains of her house and the crushed legs of Evamean, the Wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy is greeted warmly but confused by the Munchkins who are happy the Wicked Witch has been smooshed but know that her sister, Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (E. Faye Butler), will seek revenge.
Addapearl, the Good Witch of the North (also Butler), arrives in a bit of misplaced hocus pocus and sets Dorothy on the path to the Emerald City—wearing her dead sister’s silver slippers, naturally–to meet the Wiz who could send her home.
Along the way Dorothy meets the Scarecrow (Jared Grimes), the Tinman (James T. Lane) and the Cowardly Lion (Darius De Haas). Eventually they meet The Wiz (Nathan Lee Graham), who agrees to give them what they wish in return for ending the tyranny of Evillene.
Act Two starts with a battle of the heroes against the Flying Monkeys and the melting of the Wicked Witch. It felt like the show got to that point a little early. The rest is the Wizard explaining his long-running charade, flying away before he grants Dorothy her wish, and Dorothy discovering that her magic slippers could always take her home as long as she believed in the magic, as explained by Glinda, the Good Witch of the South (McKinney again). Upon arriving home Dorothy is greeted by her favorite four-legged friend, much to the audience’s delight.
Fulton is a lovely singer and talented leading lady, who blends acting, dancing and singing in an effortless fashion. Her rendition of “Soon as I Get Home” was touching, and her chemistry with Jared Grimes in particular was strong, particularly on the show’s signature tune “Ease on Down the Road.”
Grammy winner Nathan Lee Graham, a Webster University graduate, played The Wiz with high energy and belted out “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard,” “Believe in Yourself” and “Y’all Got It!” with gusto.
The special effects of the show were somewhat disappointing, but given the constraints of outdoor theatre, understandable. It would certainly be nigh impossible to launch a balloon, mechanically or otherwise, into the tall oaks surrounding the stage.
“He’s The Wizard” featuring Addapearl and the Munchkins was bookended by comedy spots that punctuated by bursts of steam that just seemed kind of underwhelming, perhaps because the ride into Forest Park had already been pretty steamy that day.
The effect was also used for Evillene’s demise. It wouldn’t have been nice to see a different stage magic device used to keep the scenes from feeling too similar.
While choreographer Camille A. Brown’s contemporary dance routines were delightful, particularly the use of the ensemble as the tornado, there were some choices in the show that confused me.
The scenic design was solid but there wasn’t a yellow brick road to speak of on the floor of the Muny stage. Instead there were dancers in purple featuring a yellow design on the lower end of their costumes that represented the famous landmark of Oz.
Leon Dobkowski’s costumes were fine, but the lack of a more physical, albeit obvious, yellow brick road was an unusual choice. More Toto would not have gone unappreciated.
The show comes together beautifully under the direction of Broadway and St. Louis favorite Denis Jones. However, it still felt a bit too much like the traditional “The Wizard of Oz” in terms of plot.
That isn’t his fault, of course, but the film version put Dorothy in Harlem, not Kansas, and seemed a little more steeped in the 1970s African-American experience. In some ways, the show didn’t feel wholly re-imagined from the original musical/film, but mostly just retooled with R&B styled songs.
If you’re thinking about making a cultural interpretation of a classic piece of art, please feel encouraged to go all-in and change the setting, the costume designs, and so forth.
For instance, imagine the Scarecrow as TV’s Steve Urkel, the Tin Man as a silver-plated ne’er-do-well who wants to clean up his act and perhaps start a ministry, and the Lion as a beefy NFL linebacker who has personal space issues and refuses to tackle anyone.
Overall, this production of “The Wiz” was quite entertaining. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “If I Only Had A Brain” were sorely missed, but the well-loved DVD is never far from the entertainment center.
Seeing a somewhat different interpretation of the classic tale, with an emphasis on African American musical styles, performed by an outstanding cast with an equally talented crew was well worth the wild ride to the Muny in an early summer downpour.
Conductor Darryl Archibald led the Muny musicians through a delightful array of beats and tempos, and Brown’s choreography, paired with Dobkowski’s costume designs were dazzling.
This is why folks here say: “Meet me at the Muny!”
“The Wiz” was performed June 19 – 25 at The Municipal Association of St. Louis’ outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more on the 2018 Muny Season, visit www.Muny.org.