A brand new day is coming for potentially terrific “The Wiz”

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

There is something wonderful about The Wiz, the joyful Black take on The Wizard of Oz, and it comes from the sense of exuberant celebration that pervades the whole show if it is done well. I’ve seen it live up to this potential, but I’ve also seen it fall flat due to weak casting, poor direction, and lack of creativity. This new pre-Broadway edition, though rough around the edges as one might expect, shows most of the hallmarks of potential greatness and is in fact extremely enjoyable even as it is right now, but there is an awkward hole at its center despite some excellent new additions to the book by clever comedy writer Amber Ruffin.

One key, of course, is casting, and director Schele Williams has a lot of talent on display here, starting with Melody A. Betts, who wows us right off the bat as Aunt Em before settling into the scenery-chewing role of the Wicked Witch of the West, Evillene. (I have to put some blame on her parents for her wickedness: how can a girl named Evillene—or her recently deceased Eastern sister Evamean—have a chance to be anything but wicked?) Evillene pretty much jubilates in causing suffering: when we meet her, she demands of her minions, “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” and she means it, immediately casting bad news bearers into the furnace. Betts has an absolute blast playing this over-the-top character after showing us her human, emotional side as Em. (Note: Kirk Cambridge Del-Pesche’s Evillene makeup is almost too good, and he also kills it on everyone else. His Lion and Tin Man are incredible!)

Speaking of the central characters of this journey: Avery Wilson’s fun, friendly take on the Scarecrow is totally endearing from the moment we first see him hanging there watching a murder of crows eating the corn he was supposed to be protecting. His faux-awkward dancing works beautifully, and despite his repeated references to having no brain he is always making clever observations. (The brainlessness, by the way, is attributed to a run-in with none other than Evillene, so we begin to get a picture of her right away.)

Shortly after he and Dorothy begin to “ease on down the road,” they run into another one of the Wicked Witch’s victims: the Tin Man (Phillip Johnson Richardson). This updated script does away with the graphic description of her curse—she made it so his ax would cut off a part of him with every swing, requiring help from a local tinsmith in building a new body—but it’s just as well. In the original version, part of the blame for his lacking a heart is due to that smith; here, it’s all due to Evillene. Richardson dances the Tin Man’s role with precision and joy that makes complete sense given how long he has been stuck there immobilized. (Choreographer JaQuel Knight, known for his work on music videos by the likes of Beyoncé, gives Richardson some wonderful moves, as he does with Wilson; now if he would just get rid of some of the group dance routines: many, like “Tornado,” are brilliant, but there are a couple that reminded me of high school cheerleaders…)

As for the Lion, Kyle Ramar Freeman creates a wonderfully comic, poignantly tragic version of the iconic character—Evillene is responsible for his cowardice too, as she took his family away from him when he was young and, unlike Simba in a different show, he lacked any kind of role models after that. Freeman’s first sound as the Lion is a roar that would make even Mufasa jealous as he sings about being a “Mean ol’ Lion,” but he can’t sustain it; at his core, he is frightened of absolutely everything.

Of course, none of this would even be happening without Dorothy (Nichelle Lewis), and this is a bit of a problem for the moment. Lewis has never led a Broadway musical, and she clearly needs to grow into it. It doesn’t help her that Ruffin’s new material has her as a displaced and morose city girl newly arrived in Kansas. As good as that is for character background, it allows her Dorothy to mope through the first few scenes without a lot of energy instead of showing signs of the resilient person she will become. Lewis has a great singing voice and shows it off beautifully, but she needs better character development (and fewer cheerleader moves). I’m sure this will come as she “eases” into the role more.

Other key roles belong to Alan Mingo, Jr. and Deborah Cox. Mingo is a con man wizard who is so slimy that one wishes for the spirit of Frank Morgan, the more sympathetic Oz of the 1939 movie, or Andre DeShields, who originated the role on Broadway. Mingo’s Wizard has eyes that are constantly on the move, as if he is always worried he will be caught out, and this version does not give him the redemption arc of the movie or even the original Broadway play. (That too should be adjusted as this tour goes on.) Cox is a completely wonderful Glinda in a mirrored, gleaming costume, but unfortunately the sound mixing in her numbers made it hard to hear her at times. And there is also the quirkily enjoyable Addaperle (Allyson Kaye Daniel), who meets Dorothy shortly after her wind-assisted emigration and is practically a whirlwind herself as she introduces Oz’s newest citizen to the way things work.

Director Williams has, overall, done a fine job here, juggling lots of different pieces both old and new. Between Hannah Beachler’s set design and Daniel Brodie’s projections, this is a far more colorful and inventive Oz than we might expect. (Don’t miss the Munchkin City residences swaying in the breeze.) There are, as always, a few minor problems: in addition to what I’ve already mentioned, Williams needs to do more with a key dance scene featuring an attack by Evillene’s squad of “kalidahs”—no winged monkeys here; they are all busy doing Wicked—that unfortunately ends up pretty scattershot and confusing. The bottom line, though, is that this is a play that will undoubtedly keep on improving until it arrives on Broadway, and it’s already quite strong; you’ll undoubtedly have a good time on this return to the Land of Oz.

The Wiz is now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago, through December 10. Performance times vary; check Broadway in Chicago’s website. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *