By Yvonne Hudson
Broadway-bound and rocking the Benedum Center, The Wiz works its magic in a multi-city national tour. The well-known fable of Dorothy and her friends was transformed into a soulful and jazzy musical some 49 years ago. The show celebrates half a century when it hits Broadway in early 2024, and Pittsburgh audiences will have played a part.
In Thursday night’s performance, the legend was reborn in a new production supported by 21st-century technology and led by famous characters now embedded in our culture.
Visually, this Wiz is stunning as new technologies and traditional theater craft meld. Wonderfully, there’s room for the audience’s collective memories and imaginations to connect the dots.
This is indeed an exciting new day for The Wiz and all the creatives on stage and off. Smart “new material” by Amber Ruffin updates William F. Brown’s book. At the same time, Charlie Small’s original music and lyrics still inspire the moves and motivations on stage, touch the audience’s hearts, and kick up the urge to dance.
Moreover, the core creative team brings their commitment to authentic and diverse arts experiences to this landmark production. Director Schele Williams and choreographer Jaquel Knight apply strong and thoughtful choices in this update. Themes of inclusiveness, individuality, and freedom ring throughout the show while the physical and vocal artistry of this cast shines.
The powerful collaboration of top artists makes this Wiz a milestone as its tour begins. Joseph Joubert (music supervision, orchestrations, & music arrangements) and Allen Rene Louis (vocal & music arrangements) bring the amazing score and songs into a new light.
The Wiz creative team includes Academy Award® winner Hannah Beachler (scenic design), Daniel Brodie (projections), John Weston (sound), Emmy® and two-time Academy Award® nominee Sharen Davis (costumes), Barrymore Award winner Ryan J. O’Gara (lighting), Drama Desk Award winner Charles G. LaPointe (wigs), and Kirk Cambridge-Del Pesche (makeup).
The young breakout star is Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy. Her vocals were superb as she carried the action with grace and charm beyond her 24 years. Headed for her Broadway debut, Lewis is a jewel that shines alongside the seasoned good and wicked witches of The Wiz. All these women will knock your socks off with their performances. As the caring Aunt Em and vengeful Evilene (the Wicked Witch of the West), Melody A. Betts wins some of the kindest and meanest moments while taking everyone to church with the iconic No Bad News, the gospel classic in Act II. Deborah Cox sparkles as Glinda brings down the house with her passionate 11 o’clock number, “Believe in Yourself.” Other magical standouts are Allyson Kaye Daniel as Good Witch of the North and Addaperle.
Not to get ahead of the tornado, but it’s Auntie Em (Betts) who comforts Dorothy (Lewis) in the show’s opening minutes when the young niece shares her dismay at winding up in Kansas. Then, all that’s black and white is wiped out by a cyclone, turning the set and more from grey to full color—a loving nod to the 1939 film.
The well-known story and characters shine a clean, fresh, superbly joyful, and entertaining experience. What’s more, it’s appropriate for most ages.
Dorothy’s beloved trio of adventurers is terrific as each meets her and joins her journey to Oz. These three stellar artists sing, act, and dance their way into our hearts. Avery Wilson’s Scarecrow is endearing and smartly moves as if he has no bones. The Tinman of Phillip Johnson Richardson is loving despite his heartless chest. As the Lion, Kyle Lamar Freeman brings fresh personality to a beloved character who rises to meet his own bravery. Dorothy emerges as their biggest fan, and her leadership (“girl power”?) encourages each to find what they had within all along.
The legendary Wiz is a piece of work crafted by Alan Mingo, Jr., who adroitly might convince even seasoned fans that he’s the real thing. His Meet the Wizard and reprise with the Ozians puts a button on his “act.”
But it’s Dorothy’s strength, resolve, and increasing maturity that drives this story. By the time she reaches Oz, Lewis already has the audience in her hands. By the time she gets the signature number Home before curtain, the audience is ready to cheer her on to wherever she goes.
There’s a sense the audience indeed plays a role in crafting what will play on Broadway. The set and costumes indicate the flexibility a show touring to diverse venues requires. The projected back wall is a dream—facilitating everything from the opening black and white look of Kansas, the tornado that whisks Dorothy to Oz, and settings that range from every stop on the “yellow brick road.” The homes of Dorothy, The Wiz, every witch, and the citizens of Oz are incredibly detailed amid rapid location changes. Layered Victorian toy theater wings charmingly frame the action. Compact and practical set pieces quickly appear and disappear in a brisk and creative parade of theater magic.
The diverse and talented ensemble brings new life to the expected scenic elements. Their multiple characters range from seven crows in a cornfield to Evilene’s 15 exhausted slaves in her sweatshop. A half a dozen dancers depict the violent tornado. Poppies fill the scrim while dancers appear as sleep-inducing flowers. The dancers populate an Ozian early hours night club and virtually every character outside of the team of leading players.
The Wiz was groundbreaking for its diverse casting that spotlighted amazing artists of color in one show. A film version and even a live television broadcast targeted at a new generation have further cemented the story of Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz in our collective consciousness.
Delighted applause and an immediate standing ovation confirmed The Wiz to be as crowd-pleasing and as fulfilling as ever, with its themes of friendship, family, freedom, and doing the right thing.
It might be apparent that the omission of canine Toto, a more literal yellow brick road, and some more complicated costume pieces foreshadow additions and eventual tweaking in one Broadway venue. Ultimately, audience expectations reign, even in the familiar land of Oz. If Annie has Sandy, then Dorothy might have Toto. And witches might appear or melt even more dramatically.
In the meantime, those easing down the road with this charming and powerful company can revel in this sparking revival around the US on its way to New York.
The remaining performances of The Wiz are Saturday at 8 pm, with an early matinee on Sunday at 1 pm.
Read more about the production’s journey in our OnStage preview.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
The Wiz, part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series, is at the Benedum Center, for tickets visit: https://trustarts.org