Ashanti and James Monroe Inglehart in The Wiz
The Wiz is an urban musical version of The Wizard of Oz with an all-black cast. It originally opened on Broadway in 1975, with Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, and did well in the Me Decade, playing for four years and spawning a movie in ’78 that starred a way-too-old Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow (it was directed by Network‘s Sidney Lumet, of all people). The Wiz was revived on Broadway in ’84 but received a less stellar response the second time around — it closed after only two weeks. And herein lies the problem with The Wiz: you’d better have an incredible production, because in the end it’s just not a very good show.
The newest version, playing through July 5, is part of New York City Center’s Encores! Summer Stars series, with the potential for a future Broadway run. Encores! employs high-caliber casts and creative teams to produce musical revivals; with somewhat minimal sets and a limited three-week run, the point is to put a staged but unfinished version of a show in front of an audience, then evaluate the response and potential future for the production. For example, the 2007 production of Gypsy with Patti LuPone started at Encores! and went on to a spectacularly successful run on Broadway. I’m not sure The Wiz will make the transfer, but I’d love to see this cast together again. For all the ways in which the production misses the boat, there are some truly wonderful moments as well.
The Wiz utilizes the In the Heights team of director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and musical director Alex Lacamoire. It’s a smart move since both musicals are happy and hopeful and have an urban vibe, and both focus on the idea of what it means to be “home.” To their credit, Kail, Blankenbuehler, and Lacamoire do a great job with the material, and they have a tremendous cast and orchestra.
The weakest link is Grammy-winning pop star Ashanti, who plays Dorothy. This is her stage debut, and it’s pretty apparent she’s not an actress. But she has a lovely voice, and the kids in the audience were going crazy. (I guess anything that gets kids to the theater can’t be all bad.) Luckily, she’s surrounded by a fantastically talented cast, including Tony winner LaChanze (The Color Purple) as Auntie Em, Orlando Jones as the Wiz, and a whole slew of singers and dancers who round out a stellar ensemble.
The story itself is presentational and formulaic, so each scene introduces a new character who gets a fun solo to sing; in a lot of ways, it’s like watching “Bad Show Tune Night” on American Idol, if such an episode existed. Even with a talented cast singing their respective faces off, the songs are fairly forgettable, with the exception of the wicked witch’s gospel-esque diva number, “No Bad News,” the gorgeous ensemble song “Everybody Rejoice” (written by Luther Vandross), and “Ease On Down the Road.”
Blankenbuehler’s choreography is creative, and the dancers certainly perform it with grace and athleticism. As a dance show, The Wiz impresses. But the staging is tough with Encores! shows because the orchestra is showcased onstage. Don’t get me wrong, it’s incredibly cool — and they deserve it — but the result is that the cast of 30 is forced to maneuver around a large, winding staircase and platform. I’m not sure if this is part of the reason the pacing of the show is off or if it’s the fault of the book and score, but the scene changes are often disjointed.
It’s not that this production of The Wiz is bad — it’s entertaining, energetic, and brimming with talent. For what it’s worth, it’s a great kids’ show as well. It just lacks the “wow” moments needed to revive an insipid musical and make it new again. But it’s worth seeing while it’s playing this summer, especially if you have a personal connection to the musical or the movie.
The Wiz plays through July 5 at New York City Center, 130 W. 56th St. Tickets are $25-$110. For the performance schedule and to purchase tickets, visit nycitycenter.org/tickets.