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Chicago by John Olson

The Wiz
White Horse Theatre Company

The Wiz
Andrew Malone, Samara Smith, Gerald Richardson and Dwight Neal
With last season's Purlie at the Goodman, last Fall's Raisin at the Court and this production of The Wiz, Chicagoans have been given the chance to visit or revisit three of the hit African-American-themed musicals of the 1970s (Ain't Misbehavin',Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death and Bubbling Brown Sugar are also in this group.) The Wiz, though, can be called the king of this class, boasting a four-year Broadway run from 1975 to 1979 and a 1978 feature film translation starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor. It's a good choice for White Horse, a five-year-old company of not-all-that-recent college grads who focus on less-performed musicals that can loosely described as youth-oriented. It's a generous choice as well. Though company members Craig Joseph, Ryan Brewster and Baron Clay provided the stage direction, musical direction and choreography, White Horse turned over the stage to African-American guest artists to perform this show, one of only two productions in the company's season.

This was my first viewing of The Wiz, but I bet I'd be safe in guessing that this piece, lacking the literary credentials of a Purlie or a Raisin, has always been about entertaining the audience. As an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, there are no surprises in the story and, to my taste, not a lot of particularly clever dialogue or invention in its taking of liberties with the story. There are songs, though. Upbeat, melodic ones that make no one (other than maybe someone like the Judy Garland biographer and Wizard of Oz scholar John Fricke) wish for the Arlen-Harburg songs of the Judy Garland film.

The Wiz's songs are delivered by a cast whose talent is just a bit raw, but they fully commit to the funky spirit of the piece and to giving the audience a good time. Samara Smith is a bright and energetic Dorothy. Though her singing voice is a little thin, she wins us over as the trusting but not exactly naïve nineteen-year-old farm girl who, in a twist from the original, is reluctant to leave the Kansas farm for the bright lights of Topeka. Andrew Malone is a marvelously floppy Scarecrow and is well matched by the Tin Man of Gerald Richardson and Dwight Neal's Lion. August J. Echols is a slick and slimy Wiz, and Shayla Jarvis brings a passing resemblance and a bit of the spunky attitude of the TV Jeffersons' maid Florence to the role of good witch Addaperle. It's a special treat to see Bethany Thomas, a standout in Porchlight's In Trousers two years ago, as the bad witch Evilene. Given an unearthly shape in one of Alison Siple's imaginative and colorful costumes, her presence and cackle dominate the brief time on stage in which we get to hear her send "No Bad News" across Belmont Avenue.

Siple's costumes also include such gems as munchkins covered in floor-length flowing gowns that nearly, but not quite, conceal the office stools on which they sit and roll around the stage, letting us in on the joke; a trio of yellow-clad ensemble members forming the Yellow Brick Road; and a Tin Man covered with soft-drink and beer labels. Together with Clay's choreography, which would have fit right in on the 1960s TV show Shindig, the effects are quite dazzling in a three-quarter-century sort of way. Though the set designed by Tracy Otwell is minimal, the production values of the costumes and the perpetual motion of Clay's dancing and Joseph's blocking make this non-Equity production still quite an eyeful and a good step forward for White Horse, whose productions on smaller stages have been a little static.

The Wiz runs through March 25 at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave, Chicago, with Thursday and Friday performances at 7:00 p.m., Saturday performances at 2:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Ticket prices are $25, with student and senior tickets for $22. Tickets may be purchased by calling the Theatre Building Chicago box office at (773) 327-5252 or online at www.ticketmaster.com. For more information, visit www.whitehorsetheatre.com.


Photo: Peapod Photo

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-- John Olson



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