Lyric's "Wiz": Everything's Up-to-Date in Emerald City

Martin, Borders, Green & Smith in "The Wiz"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Rumor hath it that a certain theater critic went kicking and screaming (well, at least reluctantly) to The Wiz, the final production of the season by Lyric Stage Company. Loosely based (very loosely) on the 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, this version, (as a Broadway show), won seven Tony Awards in 1972, including Best Musical and Best Score by Charlie Smalls (notably not for its Book by William F. Brown). The competition was weak that season, from the little-known-and-now-forgotten The Lieutenant (9 performances), a lovely flop Jerry Herman work about Mack Sennett, Mack and Mabel (66 performances), and the stage version of the popular film Shenandoah (1050 performances). The concept of an adaptation of “Wizard” with an all African-American cast was unusual enough to help it last for 1,672 performances, though a poorly executed 1984 revival lasted only 13 performances. A 1978 film version was a colossal flop though it became a cult film (preposterously starring Diana Ross as Dorothy, when Ross was thirty-three years of age, albeit starring not as a student but as a teacher). A 2015 version televised live received no bad news critically, but lost in the ratings to a football game. In all its incarnations, its score was considered merely serviceable (though with a few showstoppers), with a scant book. Yet it was acclaimed for its hopeful inspiration to “believe in yourself”. None of the various versions, however, came even close to that of the original film that took us over a much more melodic and colorful rainbow. All relied heavily on the quality of the performances.

Singletary, Odetoyinbo, Saxon, Smith, Green, Martin & Borders in "The Wiz"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

And so it continues to depend on its cast (and creative crew). You all more or less already know the story about Dorothy (Salome B. Smith) who leaves behind her Aunt Em (Carolyn Saxon) and Uncle Henry (Damon Singletary) and along her way encounters three characters, Scarecrow (Elle Borders), Lion (Brandon G. Green) and Tin Man (Steven Martin) all of whom have requests to submit to The Wiz (Davron S. Monroe). This updated version includes several witches, namely: Addaperle (Yewande Odetoyinbo), the Good Witch of the North; Glinda (Saxon again), the Good Witch of the South; and Evilene (Odetoyinbo again), the Wicked Witch of the West. Surprisingly this production by Lyric Stage departs from the Lyric's usual nontraditional casting, in that the cast consists completely of performers of color. And as for “I'll get you...and your little dog, too!”.....there's also, sadly, no sign of the famous mutt, only an off-stage bark. What there is, however, is a stupendous cast, from the powerful voices of Smith, Saxon and Odetoyinbo to the versatility of Borders, Martin and the Ensemble that includes Singletary as well as Soneka Anderson, Juanita Pearl, Pier Lamia Porter and Lance-Patrick Strickland, all of whom sing and dance their hearts out. And there is a Wiz to wonder at in Monroe with his grace and operatic presence. As in most versions of the story, the best-written role goes to the mesmerizing Green whose Lion would be a standout in any cast, always in character and always a delight, as he and the other road trippers challenge the Wiz's goals of power, prestige and money.

Singletary & Monroe in "The Wiz"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Over its long history, from the Broadway stage to the silver screen to television to (regional) stage, there has always been one thing in common: a silly pseudo-hip script and a score you'll either love or endure. These issues remain, but under the inspired vision of Director Dawn M. Simmons, and Music Direction by Allyssa Jones, all excel with fabulous Choreography (and a lot of it) by Jean Appolon, effective Scenic Design by Baron E. Pugh, hilarious Costume Design by Amber Voner, complex Lighting Design by Jen Rock and Sound Design by Rachel Neubauer. The orchestration has elements of creole music, as this Oz is set in New Orleans. And what the show has in abundance is wit and whimsy, as well as a heart, a brain and the courage to deliver sometimes painful puns (Lion: “I was an only cub”; Addaperle: if she'd revealed the secret of the slippers earlier in the show, “think of all the people I'd have put out of work”). In the end, this is almost certainly the best Wiz you'll ever see, and way more fun than a barrelfull of funky monkeys.

Pearl, Anderson, Odetoyinbo & Strickland in "The Wiz"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

You may ease on down the road until July 1st, so long as you don't mind a radically different and brilliantly creative Wizard of Oz that doesn't follow the original in Toto.

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