When the Cowardly Lion yells “I Can’t Breathe!” as he is mouse-handled in a poppy field in “The Wiz,” you know this GLOW Lyric Theatre production has a greater purpose than just entertain. Don’t worry, “The Wiz” does plenty of that too.
GLOW’s artistic team Christian Elser and Jeanna Tamisiea selected this family-friendly show ‑ in repertory now with “The Hot Mikado” through July 19 at the Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre ‑ last November to celebrate the African American experience and cultural diversity of Greenville, well before the Charleston massacre or the Confederate Flag controversy. The climate could not be riper for such an opportunity to revere these two classics.
Many are more familiar with the cult-classic movie version starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Richard Pryor and Lena Horne and the ensuing negative press it received. The 1975 Broadway production of “The Wiz” fared much better, winning seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls and a book by William F. Brown.
The story is taken from Frank L. Baum’s book and not the 1939 film version that everyone has seen. So there will be some notable differences: besides the multi-racial cast, the slippers are silver and not ruby and the production design is neutral and barebone with an inner city-lite motif, not like the Technicolor palettes of Victor Fleming.
Also set in Kansas, Dorothy (Tanisha Moore here with a low-waisted skirt that hides her legs that danced so beautifully in “Mikado”) is an average bored and antsy teenager who loves her iPhone and the thought of leaving the farm life one day. She also talks back to her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, who try and give he reasons to stay in the soul-stirring “The Feeling We Once Had.”
Suddenly a tornado whirls in, and in stroke of stellar special lighting effects (by Kevin Frazier with Miranda Debusk), tosses about Dorothy and parts of the farm and in a fantastic stop-motion dance sequence using a strobe light.
Of course, she awakens in Munchkin land and Addaperle (Leryn Turlington), the Good Witch of the North, tells her that her house has fallen on the Wicked Witch of the East and killed her. Dorothy trades in her high-tops for a pair of silver slippers and heads to Oz to see the Wizard for a ticket back home to the farm.
Moore is terrific as she laments her depseration in the melancholy “Soon as I Get Home,” which serves as a bookend to her other big solo – and even richer material ‑ “Home” at the conclusion of the story. You remember that heart-wrenching song.
Then, one by one and in song, we meet the Scarecow (Chris Lee) who is just dandy in “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday.” Wearing patchwork hobo clothes, Lee even moonwalks at one point to the great delight of the audience. I do hope he is wearing some knee padding or else he will be covered in bruises as many times as he will fall down on the stage during the show’s run.
The duo break into the show’s most famous groove “Ease On Down the Road” as they meet the Tin Man, Benjamin Moore in a grey jumpsuit adorned with duct tape. Moore too is impressive when he croons for some Crisco in “Slide Some Oil to Me” in his razzle-dazzle ragtime voice.
Then we meet the cowardly Lion as sung by Xerron X. Mingo. The lion is always a favorite with the kids Mingo doesn’t disappoint ‘em with “(I’m a) Mean Ole Lion.” Mingo, wearing a curly blonde wig, a multi-fur coat and leopard prints, does have the luxury of having some of the book’s funniest lines, but he doesn’t waste a syllable. He is just a hoot when he cleans himself in the poopy field scene, pawing at the toxic pollen as if it was catnip. This scene is a wee bit creepy and funny as the Lion hallucinates but the wistful score really ties it together well.
The Wiz is played here by Demetruis Spidle, who taps his feet off in the title role of “The Hot Mikdao.” Wearing a black choir robe with emerald green trim, a green hoodie and bling with the letters “OZ,” Spidle provides, perhaps, the best male vocals in this show in the Caribbean or Latin-inspired “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard.”
Tierney Breedlove is Glinda the Good Witch and shows off her powerful vibrato in the gospel-infused “Believe in Yourself.”
The Wicked Witch
Evillene is the name of the Wicked Witch of the West and she is sung by Joslynn Cortes, who is now making a splash as the vamp Katisha in “The Hot Mikado.” The Wicked Witch gets far too little stage time in “The Wiz,” not appearing until top of the second act. But boy is Cortes a smash as she exerts her control over Oz in the showstopper “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News’ with its lightning-fast tempo and hand-clapping rhythm. Bravo!
The leads are all extraordinary but what particularly impressive about this version is the choreography and the hard-working ensemble. Maurice Sims has paid homage to the original Broadway choreographer George W. Faison ‑ was the first African-American ever to win a Tony – in the key scenes and keeps the numbers fluid, light and loose. And he has taken several of the routines to the next level and updated it with an avant-garde edge. I like it Mr. Sims.
And while it’s clear many of the ensemble are singers first – i.e. the dancing is not all super-polished ‑ the execution is pretty darn good for a group that plays a huge helping of the characters in “The Wiz” from Munchkins to mice and flying monkeys, and even a human yellow brick road.
Costumer Will Lowry has really dug deep into barrel of innovation for the multitude of costumes. In addition to all of those costumes for the main roles described previously, he has laced the entire production with sweet touches of artistry include the wicked witch’s black dress with yellow work gloves for shoulder pads and “Caution Tape” fringe, giant blue Minnie Mouse bows and Glinda’s African-inspired wrap-skirt.
The students from GLOW’s summer camps appear as many of the Munchkins, though none have speaking roles. They are really cute in blue shirts with white hand-crafted paper dots and blue soccer socks.
For the set, Lesley Preston uses a second-story deck with a framed curtain that is used as an entrance. But it’s the movable metal staircase that is centerpiece of the blocking. It allows the action to move about and serves as the grand entrance for many of the primary characters, most notably the Wizard, who we first as a giant scary green mask with lighted eyes and huge waving arms before he is dethroned by Dorothy and friends. It also doubles for the hot air balloon scenes when the citizens of Oz climb aboard with the Wizard and fly away and is used prominently in the tornado scene. Both are very nicely done by the way.
Hats off, to sound designer Brittany Lawrence and technical director for all of those special effect moments too.
The music is directed by Elser and excels in this sumptuous score that runs the gamut from gospel to pop and soul. The 1970s funky organ riffs (that’s Andy Welchel and Hailey Darnell on the keyboards) are outstanding as well as the wide-range of drumming styles of Christopher Earle. Brent Belue plays a groovin’ bass guitar and Zac Bolton is on lead and rhythm guitar.
Tamisiea also directs “The Wiz” and has crafted an imaginative and faithful production here. Setting to story in contemporary times (i.e. Starbucks cups, iPads and the Lion’s nod to Eric Garner’s death in police custody) goes a long way in giving the musical’s theme of “believing” an urgency during this period of healing in America. Perhaps, one day we can all get along and respect one another.
Catch “The Wiz” Sunday, July 12 at 7:30, Saturday, July 18 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, July 19 at 3 p.m. And don’t miss the cast from “The Wiz” at a FREE “A Day Out with Dorothy and Friends” in Cleveland Park on Tuesday, July 14 from 10 a.m. til noon.
For tickets, visit www.glowlyric.com.