By ROY BERKO
The reconfigured The Wiz, as one of its major song’s states, is easing down the road on its way to Broadway. Previews for that show begin on March 29, 2024, with the Big Apple opening scheduled for April 17.
Until it gets to New York City, it is touring the hinterlands in a 13-city schedule, with Cleveland being the second stop, following the premiere several weeks ago in Baltimore.
What you see in The Land of Oz is about the same as if you were to go to New York, while paying lower ticket prices. The only announced change is that über-star Wayne Brady will play The Wiz, replacing Al Mingo, Jr., who is in the role for much of the pre-Broadway tour.
The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical is a musical with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls and book by William F. Brown. It is a retelling of L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (1900) in the context of contemporary African-American culture.
The 1975 Broadway production of the retold Oz story, which opened to mixed reviews, won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It was an early example of Broadway’s mainstream acceptance of works with an all-Black cast. It has had revivals in New York, London, San Diego, and The Netherlands. A limited-run revival was presented at New York City Center in June of 2009.
A big-budget film adaptation of the same name was released in 1978. It starred Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne and Mabel King.
A live television production, “The Wiz Live!”, was broadcast on December 3, 2015.
Yes, Baum’s novel has turned into a cottage industry. The original book spawned 13 more renditions and there were knock-offs by other authors, as well as all the media productions, clothing, dolls, lunch boxes, posters and lots of tchotchkes.
Of little knowledge to most is that the producer of the original The Wiz, considered closing the musical after its Broadway opening night. One source attributes its turnaround success to a publicity campaign that included a TV commercial featuring the cast singing “Ease On Down the Road,” a song that proved so popular that it was released as a single recorded by the disco group Consumer Rapport. The single hit the Billboard Soul Singles chart, peaking at #19 and also peaking at #42 in the Hot 100, thus saving the show.
The musical toured the U.S. in 1976, when it had its last professional stop in this area.
The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical’s “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” story-line centers on teenaged Dorothy Gale who lives with her Aunt Em on a farm in Kansas. (Sorry, no dog Toto in this adaptation).
Dorothy often gets bored with farm life, choosing to dream of someday seeing far-off lands.
One day, Dorothy gets her wish when a tornado sweeps through the countryside, and whisks the young girl and her house off to a field covered with flowers. (Spoiler alter: no big visual spiraling wind here…the storm is made up of a marvelous crew of dancers who impressively engulf the stage.)
Upon landing, Dorothy is met by the Munchkins, (another spoiler alert: these are not the little green-faced and dressed people of the original movie; they are Blacks dressed in magnificent multi-colored clothing).
Also present is Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North, who tells Dorothy that she is in the Land of Oz. Furthermore, her house has fallen on Evamean, the Wicked Witch of the East, and killed her, freeing the Munchkins from her evil powers. (HURRAH!)
Dorothy, distressed and confused, wants only to return home. With Addaperie’s magic unable to take the girl beyond the country boundaries, the good witch decides Dorothy’s best chance for assistance is to follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City, to seek the help of the great and powerful Wizard of Oz, or “The Wiz” for short. (And, that’s the source of the musical’s title.)
Dorothy is given Evamean’s silver shoes (not the red slippers of Judy Garland fame), and told not to take them off before she reaches home, for they hold a very powerful charm that will keep her safe.
Addaperle reappears, suggesting that Dorothy ask Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, for assistance.
And so, Dorothy goes off down the Yellow Brick Road to meet the scarecrow, tinman, the cowardly lion, the Wiz and lots of others in her search for the key to getting back home.
Flash forward. Eventually, after lots of singing and dancing, Dorothy meets Glinda, a beautiful and gracious sorceress. She tells Dorothy (no spoiler here, this is a fairy tale and therefore, must have a happy ending. Besides, if you don’t know the story, you should have sat next to little girl two rows in front of me and overheard her mama relate the entire tale aloud, to the annoyance of those seated around the duo.)
Glinda shares that the silver shoes have always had the power to take Dorothy home, but like her newfound friends – the Scarecrow, the Tinman and Lion – she needed to believe in herself. (Ah, the moral of the tale!)
Dorothy bids a tearful goodbye to her friends, clicking her heels together three times, and finds herself transported back to Kansas.
It’s now finale time where the audience rises, claps like mad, sings and dances in the aisles to the show’s wrap-up by the cast, and leaves to buy t-shirts in the lobby!
As for the production: with the exception of Nicole Lewis, who plays Dorothy and has a great voice and dance skills, but lacks the warmth and cutesy-personality that would have made for a lovable child, the cast is top-notch. (She’s just too sophisticated and adult.)
Outstanding performances were put in by the delightful Avery Wilson (Scarecrow) whose “You Can’t Win” was a smile-fest; stiff-limbed, charming, Phillip Johnson Richardson (Tinman) whose “Slide Some Oil to Me” was totally amusing; and Kyle Ramar Freeman (Lion) who, though no Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion of the original movie version of “The Wizard Of Oz,” was properly cuddly and charming as the Lion, especially during “Mean Ole Lion.”
Other highlight performers are the beautiful and talented Deborah Cox as Glinda, whose “Believe in Yourself” carried the moral of the tale, the hysterical Allyson Kaye Daniel as Addaperle, whose outrageous personality set the tone of the show and Alan Mingo, Jr. as The Wiz! The supporting cast sung and danced with a high level of professionalism.
Hannah Beachler’s combined electronics and traditional theatrical setting, set the right visual image for the show, as did Ryan J. O’Gara’s lighting and John Weston’s sound design. Sharen Davis’s costumes stole the show with their rainbow hues glistening brightly.
Musical director Paul Byssainthe, Jr. and his well-tuned orchestra set the right mood for the show with its extended version of the overture and wisely underscored rather than dueling with the vocal abilities of the cast.
Director Schele Williams and choreographer Jaquel Knight lit up the stage with their creativity!
Cleveland connection: Producers for the show include Gina Vernaci, who recently retired as the president and CEO of Playhouse Square and The Araca Group, composed of native west-siders Matthew Rego, Michel Rego and Hank Unger, whose past productions included such shows as Wicked, Urinetown, The Wedding Singer, Rock of Ages, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Cinderella,’ and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical.
Capsule judgement: There is no doubt that you should ease your way down the road to the Connor Palace to escape from our world of war, angst and government chaos, and thoroughly enjoy the reimagined Wizard of Oz!
The Wiz is at the Connor Palace for three weeks, through Sunday, October 22, 2023. Available tickets can be purchased by calling 216-241-6000 or online at playhousesquare.org
Roy Berko is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and the Cleveland Critics Circle.