By Beverly Friend, PhD, American Theater Critics Association
The Stage Door actors could make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and that is exactly what they do in their production of The Wiz. The choreography alone is worth the price of admission — what amazing, acrobatic, and skilled dancers who can successfully enact such non-human depictions as a tornado or a yellow brick road. Kudos to director/choreographer Lloyd Culbreth. As a dance show, nothing could be more impressive. But is it anything more than that?
It is always fascinating to see classics reinterpreted. Hamlet is enriched when the point of view changes it to become centered on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard’s creation. The Wizard of Oz has worn many faces since its initial publication as a book by Frank Baum in 1900. Two silent movies came out in 1910 – The Wonderful World of Oz and The Land of Oz. In 1925, another silent film appeared, only to eclipsed by the version most cherished today, Judy Garland in the 1939 version. This may be the climactic moment of its history, but it is far from the end. In 1972, Judy’s daughter, Liza Minelli played Dorothy in Journey Back to Oz.
Also in 1972, The Wiz, a Broadway version with an all-black cast, won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical. Moreover, as it is in the context of African American Culture, it is often cited as an early example of Broadway’s mainstream acceptance of works with an all-black cast. This was followed by a film of the same name set as an urban fantasy in New York, replacing Kansas with Harlem.
While it might have been fascinating to see Stage Door mount this as an urban fantasy, they stayed with the Broadway musical which clings to the original story – from Kansas farm to Oz and back again.
It is impossible to see this and not think of the Judy Garland film. Questions rush to mind. What ways does The Wiz contribute to or surpass the earlier, famous version? While the story is the same, the cast is black. This is cited as historically significant in displaying the talents of African American actors and fighting racism against their frequent depiction in lesser or pejorative roles. Does it give the story a different flavor and interpretation? Yes some, but the important message is the still same – how to attain a brain, a heart, courage, and also how to return to an originally unappreciated home.
While the basic story remains the same, the songs are different. Is different better? Yes, if it can open up different musical styles and approaches as it moves between rock, gospel and soul music. There is value both in “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” and “Ease On Down the Road” – in tune, tempo and vernacular. Another worthy song is “No Bad News,” belted out by Sarah Gracel as the Wicked Witch Evillene. Kudos to the five, 6-piece accompanying band. However, much of the music is pedestrian. The titles will not resonate with you. None of the melodies or lyrics compare with those sung by Judy Garland. Think “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
And what has become of the famous Ruby slippers? They are now silver. Why?
Perhaps it is unfair to compare a classic with an adaptation. But even if one could erase earlier memories, this production was too slow and lacked the right pacing to hold audience attention.
The approximately two-and-a-half-hour production came to life with the singing and dancing (especially the dancing) and fell back into mediocrity when just unfolding the plot line. The omission of Toto is symbolic of the loss of much more.
A most welcome highlight came with the introduction of the Wizard himself, played with great dash and verve by sensual, bare-chested Jamari Williams. Within the excellent cast, considering Dorothy’s three companions in her adventure – the Scarecrow (Kedrick D. Faulk), the Tin Man (Ben Bagby) and the Lion (Darius J. Manuel) — it is Manuel as the flamboyant, often agonized Lion who stands out.
This play is a MUST for Oz fans, especially those who keep a bucket list of Oz possibilities. They can proceed to Return to Oz (1978), Wicked (2003), The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (2005), Tin Man (2007), Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) and Emerald City (2017) to name but a few –but not all — adaptations.
To be fair, the Sunday matinee audience did give the play a standing ovation. Without a doubt, the talented, industrious cast deserved it!
THE WIZ will run until Dec 31 as a production of Stage Door Theatre at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center (LPAC), 3800 NW 11th Place, Lauderhill, Florida on the North East corner of Sunrise Blvd. and 441 (State Road 7). Tickets range from $48-$58. For more information and to purchase tickets call 954-344-7765 or contact www.stagedoor.org