Saturday, June 1, 2013

THE WIZ • The Black Rep

The Black Rep concludes its 36th season with The Wiz (full title -- The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical "Wonderful Wizard of Oz"), adapted from L. Frank Baum's classic children’s novel and patterned after the indelible 1939 film.  The Wiz made a lasting impression when it premiered in 1975.  Featuring a score of 1970's R&B, rock and gospel, it was the first Broadway musical to feature an all-black cast, and dazzled mainstream audiences racking up seven Tony Awards, including Best Original Score, Best Direction and Best Musical.  It also inspired the commercially unsuccessful and altogether bizarre 1978 film, featuring Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Diana Ross as Dorothy, among many others.

The familiar songs from "The Wizard of Oz" like, "We're Off to See the Wizard" and "If I Only Had a Heart", are molded into an urban frame of reference and replaced with "Ease On Down the Road", and "Slide Some Oil to Me".  The basics are the same -- after a tornado drops Dorothy (Sarah Stephens), into a strange land, she teams up with the Scarecrow (Ian Coulter-Buford), the Tin Man (Keith Tyrone), and the Lion (Herman Gordon), all headed for the Emerald City in search of The Wiz (Cedric Neal) for brains, a heart, courage, and a way back home.  There are also good and bad witches, monkeys, a pair of glittery shoes, some poignant life lessons, along with some plot detours from the film.  These detours yield some great songs and new scenes, but also some disconnects.  I suppose I'm used to the Wicked Witch of the West making her appearance earlier on, but in The Wiz, we're given a tasty little morsel of her wickedness, and then poof!  She's gone soon after with very little development leading up to it.  And why does the Wiz show himself so early?  Kind of takes the punch out of the reveal that he's just an ordinary guy, however stylish.

Ian Coulter-Buford (Scarecrow), Herman Gordon (Lion),
Sarah Stephens (Dorothy) and Keith Tyrone (Tin Man).
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
Not having the strongest book in the world, Charlie Smalls's music and lyrics are arguably the best feature of the play, and under the direction of Ron Himes,  this cast dishes out some great musical numbers, and is full of solid voices.  Stephens gives a spirited performance as Dorothy with an appealing presence and a moving rendition of "Home".  Tyrone and Coulter-Buford are lively and buoyant as the Tin Man and Scarecrow respectively.  Their individual anthems, "Slide Some Oil to Me" and "I Was Born On The Day Before Yesterday " were spot-on.  Gordon as the Lion, the most entertaining of Dorothy's companions, is filled with hearty bravado and bluster with a rousing "(I'm a) Mean Ole Lion".  Linda Kennedy is entertaining as Addaperle, the kooky Good Witch of the North, and delivers a  memorable "He's the Wiz", one of my favorites.  Raphaelle Darden looks like she's having a blast as Evillene, the Wicked With of the West.  She's marvelously evil and knocks her number, "No Bad News" out of the park.  Neal in the title role is charming with a smooth voice, and allows the Wiz a wide range of  emotions, and Sophia Stephens (Sarah Stephens's sister) as Glinda is radiant.

Cedric Neal (The Wiz).
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
Nakischa Joseph doesn't get too much stage time as Aunt Em but starts things out nicely during the prologue with "The Feeling We Once Had", and Daniel Hodges is a hoot as the gatekeeper.  The ensemble members are hard-working, filling in for everything from the tornado, the Munchkins and the enslaved Winkies, to the snooty citizens of the Emerald City and the yellow brick road itself.  They also finely bolster many of the songs with offstage voices.  Cecil Slaughter's choreography keeps everything moving with several wonderful dance numbers, and Sarita Fellows brightly costumes the ensemble and nicely informs the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man.  Dunsi Dai's two-level scenic design was sufficient, using panels over the stage for projection.  Sean Savoie provided the lighting design and under Charles Creath's musical direction, the band sounded good.

L Frank Baum's novel has spawned many adaptations, from the musical bearing the same name produced in 1902, just a couple of years after it was published, to the most recent film, "Oz, the Great and Powerful".  Along with absolutely loving the 1939 version as a kid, I fondly remember listening to the 1978 soundtrack.  A lot.  It's nice to have the opportunity to see it on stage.  It's playing until the 30th.

Raphaelle Darden (Evillene).
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein

Music/lyrics by Charlie Smalls
Book by William F. Brown
Directed by Ron Himes
Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
through June 30 | tickets: $29 - $47 • $10 student rush
Performances Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Saturday Matinee 2pm on June 22

Ian Coulter-Buford (Scarecrow), Raphaelle Darden (Evillene), Herman Gordon (Uncle Henry/Lion), Nakischa Joseph (Aunt Em), Linda Kennedy* (Addaperle), Cedric Neal* (The Wiz), Sarah Stephens (Dorothy), Sophia Stephens* (Glinda), Keith Tyrone* (Tin Man), Cora-Jean Baptiste, Heather Beal, Alicia "Sunshine" Gbaho, Dominique Milam, Nicole Thomas, Samantha Madison, Ashreale McDowell, Chivas Merchant-Buckman, Kevin Hamilton, Daniel Hodges, Prince Lyons, John Swapshire, Keelan Williams and Dajuan Johnson.
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Linda Kennedy (Addaperle).
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
Lighting design by Sean Savoie; sound design by Chad Finnan; costume design by Sarita Fellows; choreography by Cecil Slaughter; scenic design by Dunsi Dai; stage manager, Tracy D. Holliway-Wiggins.

Musical director/keyboard, Charles Creath; bass, William Ranier; guitar, Dennis Brock; drums, Chris Boyd.

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