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April 18, 2024
Ease on Down the Road
The Wiz

By Jeremy Daniel

Adaptations are common in theater and often popular shows are revised and modified to reach different audiences. Shakespeare is a favorite source of material.“Hamlet” inspired “Fat Ham” and “Romeo and Juliet led to “ West Side Story” and later “& Juliet.”

“The Wizard of Oz,” a 1939 classic movie based upon L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, provided the source material for the musical “The Wiz,” It opened on Broadway in 1975 and went on to win seven Tonys including Best Musical. Directed by Schele Williams (The Notebook,) the latest revival of “The Wiz” opened this week at the Marquis Theater and will most likely be as successful.

“The Wiz" gives much more of a backstory to the four main characters than does the movie version. Here Dorothy’s parents have died, and she’s moved to live with her Aunt Em (Melody A. Betts who doubles as the wicked witch Evillene.) Dorothy is unhappy because the other high school kids “hate her.” When Dorothy travels to meet The Wiz, she meets a trio of unusual characters. En route each tells his own story. They have all incurred the wrath of Evillene and been cursed by her. The Tinman (Phillip Johnson Richardson) misses his family, the Lion (Kyle Ramar Freeman) hides while his pride is taken away, and the Scarecrow (Avery Wilson in his Broadway debut) is a former scientist. .
One major problem with the show is the music (music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls.) So much of it seems similar and all the songs sound like they should be sung in a Gospel revival. Dorothy (very talented Nichelle Lewis) has several songs that display her terrific voice and talent. Her first numbers are plaintive and introspective.

The music in Act II is more memorable. Clad in a resplendent costume, Evillene sings “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” and brings the house down. When Dorothy throws water on her, causing her to melt, the Ozians she has enslaved sing “Everybody Rejoice.” That rousing group number could have easily closed the show. The Wiz is portrayed by the gifted Wayne Brady. He isn’t hidden behind a curtain but is out front as if he’s a Las Vegas performer and gets to sing and dance.

Although all presented well by the talented cast, there were too many songs. At the conclusion, the three friends realize that they don't need anything from the Wiz and Dorothy is leaving for home. There’s a protracted scene of goodbyes. Enough already. The finale features Dorothy as if she’s doing the encore for a concert. The audience loved it.

“The Wiz” is visually glorious with eye-popping costumes by Sharen Davis and includes numerous costume changes for the ensemble, clothing that must allow for ease of movement. As the main characters travel down the yellow brick road, they encounter several obstacles, all performed by the incredibly talented lithesome dancers, and each group wears distinctive costumes. The main characters costumes are wonderful as well, but in our informal vote, the 11 y/o and I agreed that the most outstanding costume in a group of breathtaking designs was that worn by Glinda, the good witch, (played as if performing in a concert by Deborah Cox) Her dress would have easily fit in at the Met Gala.

Often the action is energized by the talented dancers (choreography by JaQuel Knight.) We first meet them as they portray the winds during the tornado that brings Dorothy to Oz. They whirl around like gusts of air. Later they portray the crows as well as the other obstacles facing the characters from reaching Oz. When they dance to “The Emerald City,” the Wiz urges them to move faster and faster still. With movement and grace and glitter, they provided one of the highlights of the show.

A viewer new to “The Wiz” can’t help but notice changes to the movie version (book by William F. Brown.) Most of the music may be new whereas the familiar song “Ease on Down the Road,” is sung several times. The biggest change was the absence of Dorothy's dog and the 11 y/o asked “Where is Toto?

“The Wiz” is an exciting, gorgeously colorful production and good for kids. The lessons about family and home are clear with a strong hint of feminism as Dorothy realizes how strong she is. The audience was diverse, though the cast was not, and the theater was packed and full of energy. “The Wiz” did well its first time around and undoubtedly that will happen again.

Marquis Theatre
210 W 46th St,
New York, NY 10036

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Written by: Elyse Trevers
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