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Paulanne Simmons

“The Wiz” Is a Wow!”


“The Wiz”
Directed by Thomas Kail
New York City Center
131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th avenues
June 12 – July 5, 2009Mon. & Tues. 7 p.m., Wed. thru Sat. 8 p.m., matinees Wed., Sat. 6/20 and 6/27 at 2 p.m. Closing performance Sunday, 7/5 at 7 p.m. No performance 7/3 and 7/4
Tickets: $25 - $110 (212) 581-1212 or www.nycitycenter.org
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons June 19, 2009

L-R: Christian Dante White, Ashanti, and Joshua Henry in "The Wiz."

“The Wiz,” a black pop musical version of “The Wizard of Oz,” was part of a spate of black musicals that included all-black casts in traditionally all-white musicals. It received poor reviews when it opened in 1975. Its success, according to some, was due to the efforts of its producer, Ken Harper, a radio man who pushed its most promising tune, “Ease on Down the Road,” on rhythm & blues stations until it became a hit.

But there is much more to recommend this musical: an upbeat rhythmic score by
Charlie Smalls that draws not only on pop but also blues, soul and gospel; exciting choreography; and sassy black street humor incorporated in William F. Brown’s book as well as Smalls’ lyrics. And the Encores! Summer Stars production displays all these attributes in full bloom.

Thomas Kail helms an eclectic cast that includes recording artist Ashanti (Dorothy), film and television star Orlando Jones (The Wiz) and Tony award-winner LaChanze (Aunt Em/Glinda). But the big names are delightfully upstaged by an excellent supporting cast: Tichina Arnold as Evilene, The Wicked Witch of the West; Dawnn Lewis as Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North; and that wonderful winsome trio, Joshua Henry as Tinman, James Monroe Iglehart as Lion and Christian Dante White as Scarecrow.

Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and music director Alex Lacamoire as well as Kail, all earned their stripes with the Tony award-winning “In the Heights.” But it seems to this reviewer their collective talents are given their full scope in this much more imaginative production. From the very beginning when Dorothy’s Kansas home is destroyed by a tornado (the Dramatic “Tornado Ballet”) to the end of Dorothy’s adventure (“Home”), “The Wiz” takes the audience on a fanciful journey reminiscent of the one Judy Garland took in the legendary film.

The big different between the film and “The Wiz” is that in the shift from Hollywood to Broadway there’s also a reality check. Everyone knows what’s at the end of the rainbow. It certainly isn’t a pot of gold, but that’s no reason not go the distance and have a load of fun through the home stretch.

“The Wiz” is indeed a near prefect revival. Yet is suffers from the current trend of casting a star with more audience draw than relevant experience. Ashanti certainly tries hard, but she has neither the skill nor presence to fill up a Broadway stage. Even her voice, outside the sound studio and the hyped-up environment of a concert hall, doesn’t really fill the house. Nor does it communicate the emotional significance of the song in relation to character and plot in the play.

However, “The Wiz” is a family show, a show which will make the kids squeal and their parents chuckle. It’s doubtful either the young or the old will care much that Ashanti is no Judy Garland. But then again who is?


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