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Arts and Entertainment Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016 4 years ago

Theater review: 'The Wiz'

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Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe offers some fresh steps on the well-traveled Yellow Brick Road.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

L. Frank Baum wanted to write an American fairytale. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” was the result. It’s spawned a slew of adaptations on stage and screen, including a freely adapted (and freely stolen) Russian version, the famous 1939 movie musical, and a science-fiction interpretation.

“The Wiz” (1974) put an African-American spin on the tale. With music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls and book by William F. Brown, the hit musical followed the Yellow Brick Road to Harlem, wound up on Broadway and recently strolled into the West Black Theatre Troupe.  

“The Wiz” takes a slightly different road from the 1939 movie. Toto doesn’t join Dorothy in her flying farmhouse (Cairn Terriers are smart, so I assume he’s OK). The Wicked Witch of the West doesn’t even show up until the second act. Many changes are closer to the original book: Dorothy’s shoes are silver; the gang tangles with the Kalidahs in the forest; the Oz inhabitants all wear green spectacles; The Tin Man even gets to explain how he wound up with a full-body tin prosthesis.

Basically, the first act puts the band together. Set forth by Addaperle (Ariel Blue), the ditzy Good Witch of the North, Dorothy (Khadijah Rolle) trucks on down the Yellow Brick Road — personified by four dancers in brick-patterned yellow suits. (Rolle’s Dorothy is a more confident, less whiny version than others we’ve seen — a stranger in a strange land, but not afraid.) Her incarnation of Dorothy meets up with the hilarious rubber-limbed Scarecrow (Joey James); a heavyhearted Tinman (Leon S. Pitts II), who breaks into a great bluesy tap-dance number with the aid of a little WD-40; a badass Lion (E. Mani Cadet) who turns out to be only fronting.

According to the ditzy Addaperle, Oz will solve all their problems. When they finally meet him, they encounter no giant flaming head, just a pitchman in a mask with lots of razzle-dazzle. (Michael Mendez delivers a great performance as the Wiz — reminding me a little of James Franco’s take in the recent movie.) This whiz of a Wiz promises the four refugees everything if they wipe out the remaining Wicked Witch of the West (aka Evillene) and bring back her broomstick. (The Oz equivalent of “Kill Kim Jong-un and bring back his machine gun.” But let it pass.)

Tarra Conner jones’ Evillene is no pushover — and she’s the worst employer ever. She has her minions shaking in their boots when she belts out “No Bad News.” (A bad witch, but a very good singer.) Good news is all Evillene wants to hear — and she’s a firm believer in shooting the messenger. A tough customer. But in an act of involuntary witchslaughter, Dorothy and pals liquidate the Witch and come back for what’s promised. Fast-talker that he is, the Wiz convinces the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow of their courage, heart and brains through the power of positive thinking alone. (He puts the “confidence” in con man.) But Dorothy misses the balloon ride back to Harlem with him.

Fortunately, there’s one witch left: the Good Witch of the South. And so Glinda (Neyce Pierre) appears and tells Dorothy not to worry. Fortunately the kid’s still got her silver slippers and — you guessed it — winds up home in three clicks. As far as I can tell, Dorothy’s shoes don’t fall off. Like the hearts of children everywhere, the possibility of a sequel remains open.

This is a fun, warm-hearted production,with plenty of pizzazz and sheer visual inventiveness on the part of the director. The tornado becomes a swirling mass of Day-Glo dancers whirling ribbons and flags. The Yellow Brick Road becomes four dancers. Kudos to director and choreographer Kenney M. Green, costume designer Cristy Owen, set designers Donna and Mark Buckalter, lighting designer Michael Pasquini and the rest of the WBTT creative team for taking some fresh steps on the well-traveled Yellow Brick Road. Kudos also to the sizzling house band for keeping things moving.

Along with brains, this show has heart. “The Wiz” makes more of Dorothy’s relationship with Auntie Em (a sweetly tough performance by Tarra Conner jones, who’s nearly unrecognizable as Evillene) than the 1939 movie. Like “The Odyssey,” the “Wizard of Oz” is all about the journey home — and taking the long way home. That journey takes you to places and people you’d never imagined. Reimagined as an African-American journey, it’s even more poignant.

Now what happened to Toto?

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