The Wiz

The WizFor their fiftieth production, The Alumni Theatre Company reprises their first show. The Wiz is a retelling of L. Frank Baum’s classic 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the context of modern African-American culture.  The show is a perfect fit for this company, now in its tenth season, with its mission “to create bold theatrical work that gives fresh voice to the experience of young urban artists and highlights their rich contribution to our community.”

Many know the story from the movie starring Judy Garland.  This stage musical adaptation follows the journey of Dorothy, an inquisitive Black teen, as she navigates her way through the strange and challenging Land of Oz. The music is an upbeat mixture of rock, gospel, and soul.

The Wiz opened on Broadway in 1975. This hugely successful production won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical and ran for over sixteen-hundred performances. It was an early example of Broadway’s mainstream acceptance of works with an all-black cast. (The prequel, Wicked, would open on Broadway not until in twenty-five years later in 2003 and is still running today.)

As Broadway musicals go The Wiz isn’t a perfect one. In the musical, the characters lack depth. Therefore, engagement with the audience must come not so much from the drama of the story but from impressive staging. Spectacle drives success with this show. The original Broadway production clearly worked judging by its long run and very positive reviews; “A virtual musical circus … Driving rhythms, soaring songs … Boisterous, exuberant”.

Alumni and show Director Hallie Donner clearly understood this when she put together her creative team for this show. Costume Designer Demeatria Bocella along with Set & Lighting Designer Katelynn Fynaardt and Projection Designer Adam Paul have created a vibrant, colorful, and glittery environment for Choreographer Staycee Pearl’s ensemble of dancers to move in. Together they have imagined the magical world of Oz for Dorothy to explore in search of her way home. The result is a stage full of enthusiastic attitude and joy.

Fifteen-year-old Grayce Ransome, from Pittsburgh’s CAPA, is an impressive Dorothy.  Soloman Campbell as the Scarecrow, Maliq Cunningham as the Tin Man, and James Perry as the Lion are her new needy friends which she finds along the yellow brick road.  Glinda, the Good Witch of the South (Elexa Hanner), Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (Cherish Morgan), and Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North (DaMya Gurley) provide the counterpoint to her needy friends. Shae Wofford has the title role, a character whose power is made up mostly with the aid of smoke and mirrors, a true Wizard.

Rounding out the cast is Lyn Starr (Messenger), Brent Jernigan (Lord High Underling), Shakirah Stephens (Gatekeeper), and Charlese Dawson (Auntie Em). In the show’s overall mix are six actors who appeared in the first Alumni production of The Wiz, a testament to the lasting impact of the company on its members.

Shout outs to the always funny James Perry, the Lion, who has a lovely rich singing voice. Gurley, Morgan, and Hanner, are simply stunning as the three witches in their sumptuous costumes by Bocella /FashionAFRICANA. Her Black Panther-inspired costumes reinforce the characters’ strength and dominance enhanced by the actor’s powerful voices. Lynn Starr’s commanding stage presence catches your eye in spite of his small role as the Messenger. The younger members of the cast reside mostly in the ensemble of dancers. Their energy, excitement and dance moves are quite impressive.

Music Director Bridgette Perdue has a wide range of singing abilities to work with across the variety of musical styles employed in the songs. She along with the five-piece band and Sound Designer Derek Bendel have created a show that is pleasant to listen to.

Hallie Donner’s passion for the value of participation in live theater by young people and that experience’s ability to shape young people’s lives and futures is clearly evident. The impact is not only visible on stage through their performances but in their program bios as well. Directing a show of this complexity with a young cast who could easily find other things to do, and yet commit 110% to the show, is an achievement to be celebrated by the audience and all those involved on stage and backstage. Bravo!

The Wiz by the Alumni Theatre Company has performances at the New Hazlett Theatre on the North Side now through Sunday the 29th.  

For tickets and times visit  https://www.artful.ly/store/events/15519

Categories: Archived Reviews

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