Ease on down that bumpy road . . .
You don’t have to be a child of the 70’s to understand the subversive magic of taking a tale of a lily white Kansan and transposing it into our own script of Black allusions and urban metaphors. Even after winning seven Tony Awards and best musical in 1975, those early critics were lukewarm at best.
The original coming of age tale by L. Frank Baum published in 1900 and the subsequent Broadway play of 1902 is full of mixed imagery and sociopolitical double entendre. This makes for very interesting retelling in the hands of Geoffrey Holder (directed 1975 Broadway musical) who is like a mad scientist turning regular-sized humans into colorful little munchkins and creating the Tornado ballet. Casting the big ol’ queen Andre DeShields as the Wiz even is an improvement. Like the popular Blaxsploitation movies of that era, they do not have to be that great, they just are our stories told our way. Sydney Lumet’s 1978 movie version staring the late, great Michael Jackson and Diana Ross is equally panned by critics yet summarily beloved in black pop-culture.
So, after going out on a limb, towing the color line and throwing a big black power fist up in the air let me tell you what's going down at the City Center Encores! Summer Stars performance of The Wiz. On Monday, I run to City Center to see the wizard having only the fondest memories from childhood of a cracked LP that no longer plays the 1st track of the Tornado ballet. (This is a good thing because, as a child, those howling wind sounds had scared the crap out of me.)
Kudos to set designer David Korins who strips the house bare of planks so that only the door and window frames remain suspended in air as if the tornado to come is already a part of our present. Ashanti enters with Toto in tow and is wearing the worst ensemble ever (and this includes grade school shows) of a busy blue bedazzled dress, jeans and sneakers. Fortunately, LaChanze sets the tone of the night effortlessly flowing through “The Feeling We Once Had.”
The Tornado Ballet, choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler and Associate Choreographer, Joey Dowling, is excellent as the ensemble dancers do not disappoint, especially, Ryan Rankin, Herman Payne, Lauren Lim Jackson, and Jennifer Locke. The WIZ proves to be an excellent show for concert dancers to perform. Watching young dancers like Ryan Rankin (SYTYCD) move through the ography so radiantly is breathtaking while seeing veteran dancer, Herman Payne flow from scene to scene is just textbook brilliance. It makes you want to take notes! Not only does Payne dance flawlessly in a show in nearly every scene that runs for over two-and-a-half hours, but he definitely appears to be the seasoned "go-to" guy to lift cast members, carry props, change sets, secure lights, strap down hanging fly ropes, and still have the strength to balance effortlessly on one leg . . . Whew . . . probably the hardest working dancer on that stage. As for the ladies mentioned, Lauren Lim Jackson has great lines in addition to sassy "emerald city" attitude along with her fellow poppy, Jennifer Locke who seductively shows off her strong long legs with endless command. Other dancers among the ensemble with stand-out performances include Daniel J. Watts who shows excellent energy as both dancer and Field Mouse as well as William B. Wingfield who gives a strong performance as the leading hip hop, Funky Monkey. There is so much talent in New York and fun shows like The WIZ give diverse concert dancers opportunity to do what they do best. Bravo dancers!
As the Tornado Ballet ends, Korin’s minimalistic house is disassembled and Dorothy is lifted into the air on the storm shelter door. It closes as the curtain is falling to reveal a 22-piece orchestra (with the young, hot musical director, Alex Lacamoire, at the helm), which receives one of the loudest applause moments of the entire evening. They are suspended up into the space via the missing planks from the house. These long wooden beams haphazardly form a tornado funnel with which the orchestra is showcased simultaneously serving as a scaffold structure for the performers to climb to different levels.
The productions is not lacking in star power as Dawnn Lewis' comic timing as Addapelre is impeccable. Cleverly, the munchkins appear as flouncy-skirted actors on rolling chairs that remain seated the entire time adding a whimsical air to this production.
So we are just about ready to ease on down that bumpy road. So far so good…
“Soon as I Get Home” OK…
Let’s get this out of the way, Ashanti is no triple-threat. I am not sure that she understands that this is The Wiz and not a Disney musical as her sweet lyrics are beautiful but lack the fear, confusion and longing of the Dorothy character. That being said, the girl can sing; she's a true solid singer and without the help of autotune! Although I really enjoy her vocal skills, like the rest of the audience, I generally tune her out in all other sections.
Of Dorothy’s three companions down that yellow brick road, it is Joshua Henry as the Tinman that blows me away. He is able to create an air of an old man that is so effective that you feel his every step is rusted and stiff. An amazing dancer with an unique sound, the jokes just keep hitting even with the dated material. The Lion, played by James Monroe Iglehart, gives his character a contemporary-urban comic feel, but nicely retains the magic of the original songs with his big, big voice similar to his predecessor, the late great, Ted Ross. A full-sized guy, Iglehart shows worthy skillz on his dancing ability, especially when he cops a move a few times from Michael Jackson's signature freestyle. The scarecrow, played by Christian Dante White, exudes a youthful innocence with nice licks and good comic timing as well.
Orlando Jones is another casualty of the production and makes for an uninspired Wiz. By contrast, Tichina Arnold is the best Evilene ever! There is nothing like being the baddy that brings out the diva in a performance. Her costume is an architecturally designed stiff ruby encrusted cape that adjusted and changed with her movement. Let’s just call her scene ugly chic! She is evil, mean, and ugly, and she made it all look so good.
Unfortunately, it is from this point where Encores budget and timeline really take its toll on the overall production giving the musical a feeling that it is heavily edited and that the LP is slightly speeding up in some numbers. However, if there is something drastically wrong with this production, clearly the audience doesn’t seem to mind and claps, sings, laughs and gives a rousing applause after each and every musical number. Let just say there is something to this Wiz thing that goes beyond perfect script or elaborate execution.
And, then a slice of heaven… “Rested Body Is a Rested Mind”
LaChanze enters and a fresh breeze blows through City Center. She has such an amazing voice and stage presence that her background dancers wear perm-a-grin faces and tears in their eyes. Her voice is strong and nuanced and the scene rolls into “Believe in Yourself” for a back-to-back slice of that real Broadway sound. Ashanti finishes the night with a strong, well-pitched “Home.”
Even though, the second act needs work as it did in the 70’s and Ashanti is not the triple threat the rest of the cast is, or the production looks cheap when compared to Lion King or Little Mermaid, or the entire production is chopped like a plate of short ribs and whizzes by at breakneck pace, who cares? . . .Give me my “Ease on down the road”, “No Bad News” and “So you wanted to meet the Wizard.” From an audience perspective, we came, we saw, we got The Wiz at City Center in 2009. It is a good night to be had.
Cast of characters include:
Ashanti as Dorothy
Orlando Jones as The Wiz
LaChanze as Aunt Em, Glinda
Joshua Henry as Tinman
James Monroe Iglehart as Lion
Christian Dante White as Scarecrow
Tichina Arnold as Evilene
Dawnn Lewis as Addaperle
iDANZ Critix Corner
Official Dance Review by Sasha Deveaux
Contributing Editor: Candice Rox
Performance: The Wiz
Director: Thomas Kail
Choreographer: Andy Blankenbuehler, Joey Dowling (Associate Choreographer)
Musical Director: Alex Lacamoire
Venue: City Center, New York
Date: Monday, June 22, 2008 @ 7:00pm
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