Review: ‘The Wiz’ Eases Back to Broadway

Let me start with a confession: I’ve never liked “The Wizard of Oz.” But give me a retelling with, say, a Black Dorothy and Black Oz, and I’m immediately clicking my heels.

When “The Wiz” debuted on Broadway in 1975, it was a colorful exclamation of Blackness on the stage. That’s to say a Black score, by Charlie Smalls, including gospel and R&B; a Black cast; and Black audiences at the forefront.

Then three years later the beloved Motown film adaptation, starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor, pulled a Black Dorothy from her home, not in Kansas but in Harlem, and the New York City boroughs were cleverly transmogrified into the stylish, futuristic Oz.

Now “The Wiz” returns to Broadway in a revival directed by Schele Williams and an updated book by Amber Ruffin, with the aim of creating a take “through the Blackest of Black lenses.” This new production, which opened at the Marquis Theater on Tuesday, showcases creative visuals and some standout performances, but stops short of bringing modern Blackness to Broadway.

Here, Dorothy (Nichelle Lewis, in her Broadway debut) is a city girl who’s moved to Kansas to live with her Aunt Em (Melody A. Betts, who later doubles as the deliciously brass-throated witch Evillene). But Dorothy doesn’t feel at home and is being bullied by her classmates. A sudden meteorological anomaly flies Dorothy to Oz, where she seeks the counsel of the great and powerful Wiz (Wayne Brady) on how to get back home. Along the way she’s joined by a scarecrow (Avery Wilson) in need of a brain, a tinman (Phillip Johnson Richardson) wanting a heart and a lion (Kyle Ramar Freeman) desperate for some courage. (Sorry dog-lovers, there’s no Toto.)

There’s plenty of gold to be found along this yellow brick road. Deborah Cox’s Glinda, the good witch, in a shimmering gold gown, looks like a jewel and sounds like one, too, with her crystalline voice switching from jazzy scatting to a sparkling falsetto in “He’s the Wiz” and later offering a triumphant performance of “Believe in Yourself.”

Glinda’s not the only one with flashy fashion; the costume design, by Sharen Davis, draws from a wild, unpredictable range of time periods and trends. Ozians with blue Afro puffs, green extensions and multicolored braids flounce around in bright petticoats during a scene meant to replicate a New Orleans second-line parade; Evillene’s army of evil poppies slinks around in ’70s-style Afros and flare-legged jumpsuits, and the denizens of Emerald City saunter in Afro-futuristic outfits with ornate collars and fringe.

There’s just as much color in the choreography, by JaQuel Knight, which offers an evocative mélange of styles. Dorothy’s tornado is summoned with a flurry of pirouetting dancers in billowing gray fabrics. Later those stiff-backed, graceful turns are just as quickly swapped for hunched, down-low Afro-Cuban steps and crisp hip-hop moves.

The best performances in the production are likewise grounded in movement: Wilson is a playful scarecrow, his wobbly knees and freely flinging limbs showing off impressive flexibility and acrobatic skill. Freeman’s dramatic prancing and marching as the lion pair perfectly with his character’s … well, leonine theatricality.

Add to the mix a popping-and-locking Tinman who also drops a soulful “What Would I Do If I Could Feel” and the charming showmanship of Brady’s Wiz (armed with a lively exit number even more delightful than his entrance), and you’ve got a cast of sidekicks who outshine the hero.

As Dorothy, Lewis dutifully hits the notes but is dwarfed by the stage and the performers around her. Though Ruffin’s book offers a few modern updates to the lingo and gives her companions new back stories, Dorothy still lacks dimension, and Lewis struggles to fill her in with any emotional shading.

Despite its freewheeling fashions there’s a hemmed-in quality to most of the production. This Dorothy and her adventure, like the overall direction, is bright and tidy but falls short in character. The animated backdrops of Oz often have a cutesy, over-glossed Pixar-movie feel. The pacing doesn’t quite “ease on down” as it does race through the show’s two-and-a-half-hour running time; the settings and characters pass by in a blur. Even the musical arc of the show slumps into a routine, with a predictable build toward each big solo climax.

All of which is to say that “The Wiz” is a pleasant, serviceable time at the theater, but as a new production of a musical with a legacy of bringing Blackness to one of Hollywood’s and Broadway’s favorite fairy tales, it’s less satisfying.

There is a fresher production hinted at in the ecstatic array of costumes and mix of choreography. There’s a stronger, more daring representation of modern-day Blackness suggested in the faint touches of New Orleans’s Tremé neighborhood and a character’s quip about discovering their hair’s curl pattern.

In the past this paper’s critics weren’t impressed by productions of this musical. In 1984 Frank Rich rashly dismissed the “tacky” Broadway production of a musical that he deemed “hardly great” but “a once-fervent expression of Black self-respect and talent.” In his review of the original, in 1975, Clive Barnes wrote of a production with “vitality” and “style” that was nevertheless “tiresome” — perhaps because, he ventures, for him such fairy tales are only appealing when they’re grounded in one’s own experience. Does the show “say different things to Blacks than to whites?” asked a Black writer in The Times several months later. His answer was yes. So is mine.

Nearly 50 years later, with a similar degree of ambivalence, I wonder if a revival of one of theater’s beloved Black musicals is truly a Black experience. It feels more like just another night at the theater.

The Wiz
Through Aug. 18 at the Marquis Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

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