Wednesday, July 01, 2009

If It Only Had The Brain, The Heart and the Nerve - The Wiz - Musical Review

The Wiz - Encores Summer Stars at New York City Center Mainstage - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Charlie Smalls, Book by William F. Brown, Directed by Thomas Kail, Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler

Thanks heavens for the sassy black divas (and I'm not talking about Ashanti)! And thank heavens for Andy Blankenbuehler (In The Heights, 9 to 5). Tony winner La Chanze (The Color Purple, Company), Dawnn Lewis (A Different World) and Tichina Arnold (Everybody Hates Chris) makes some musical magic in their brief moments on stage and easily upstage lead Ashanti as Dorothy. Ashanti really should have played the Tin Man.

Encores presents its third Summer Stars series and falls slightly flat after following the rousing revival of Gypsy and last years entertaining Damn Yankees. Now, bear in mind that The Wiz, while having built a huge following, still is a slightly dated revisioning of The Wizard of Oz. The story is the same, and the concept of presenting the famous story of Oz with all black actors is great, but while the songs are buoyant and enjoyable (with some classics like Ease on Down the Road), the book and jokes that string the songs along have not matured well since the 70's (when The Wiz was written).

It doesn't help when they place music pop/r&b singer Ashanti as the lead Dorothy. She has a nice enough voice, but pretty much stands there like a piece of cardboard the rest of the time. If anytime the Wizard of Oz should have intervened, maybe it was here. Who cares about the heart, the courage or the brain. He needed to give Dorothy a personality ASAP.

Orlando Jones (Men In Trees, Drumline co-headlines as The Wiz himself (at least until this past Sunday, now Colman Domingo (excellent in Passing Strange) takes over) and he looks like a movie actor happy to be on stage. He's not great at all, but at least he looks like he's trying and having a great time while doing it.

Thomas Kail's direction is pretty standard and unremarkable and the stage set is in one sense, cleverly simplistic and in another sense, terribly uninspired and strangely limiting. What lifts it to watchable levels is Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography. Okay, so it definitely has his stamp on it and looks similar to the stuff he did in In the Heights and 9 to 5 but I loved it there and I loved it here. Some may say it works against the 70's sound the musical elicits but it's exactly the freshness the new dances bring to the somewhat stale show (book and direction) that makes it exciting.

The "Ease On Down The Road" sequence is particularly fun between Blankenbuehler's yellow brick steps and the song itself, it's the one time in the show that truly starts lifting off, but with the way it cuts and interludes, it never manages to lift the rest of the show up to magical heights.

Dawnn Lewis does her best (in a hideous costume, though at least it's better than the munchkins looks which look like a kindergarten class exploded around the stage) as Addaperle and is seen far too little in this show. While I'm sure Lewis had a decent career, I really haven't felt like I've seen her since A Different World (which was a LONG time ago) but now I'm wondering where's she been, because Lewis easily has a natural charisma that fills the stage. At least for the brief time her character is on the stage.

Tichina Arnold, already so fabulously hilarious on Everybody Hates Chris, uses her outlandish facial contortions to her most devilish performance as Evilene, the evil witch. But Evilene is on stage even LESS than Addaperle and is such a waste of such comic talent. Arnold squeezes in her over-the-top energy all into a single major song "No Bad News" but if evil is usually this fun, I'll side with the devil from now on.

On the good side, La Chanze gloriously sings the opening song "The Feeling We Once Had" (as Auntie Em) and the closing numbers "A Rested Body Is a Rested Mind" and "Believe in Yourself (Reprise)" (as Glinda) but sadly disappears for everything in between. Again, the role(s) is written small but its such a shame when you have La Chanze there with such a big and beautiful voice.

Of Dorothy's yellow brick road compatriots, James Monroe Iglehard fares best as the Cowardly Lion, both in voice and performance.

Christian White (as Scarecrow) and Joshua Henry (as Tin Man) weren't terrible but seemed a bit lost and overwhelmed on stage, but not as much as Ashanti.

Between Lewis, LaChanze and Arnold, and the fun and modern twist in the choreography, there were still enough elements for an entertaining show. If only they could have filled the missing magic with more of the same sparkle in "Ease on Down the Road".

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

1 comment:

Juan David said...

I generally agree with your take, although I liked the set design more (the switch from Kansas during the tornado was cute) and Tin Man was a good dancer! Actually all of the dancing was good - it can't just be the choreography...

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