Once again the Willows Theatre Company has proven to be one of the best musical comedy companies in the Bay Area. This time they present a highly professional version of The Wiz with a great director and choreographer at its helm. Stephen Semien, who performed in the 1978 film version of The Wiz, directed and choreographed some crackerjack dance numbers for this production.
The Wiz opened at the Majestic Theatre in New York January 5, 1975 and ran 1,672 performances, winning seven Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Score. I saw the musical shortly after it opened in New York and again when the touring production reached Los Angeles. Those productions were glittery and full of high power energy. The Willows production is more charming and down to earth. There is great talent on the small stage of the Willows Theater. Even the dancers are exciting. The funky monkeys, the dancers representing the yellow brick road, and even the little children representing the munchkins, are classy. Dorothy and her friends don't just go down the yellow brick road, they ease on down the road.
To describe the plot simply: this is the black version of the classic The Wizard of Oz. You have Dorothy, the lion, the tin man, the scarecrow, the Wizard and of course Emerald City. Cherelle Fortier is a captivating Dorothy. She plays the role more toward Judy Garland than Diana Ross and that is good. Cherelle has a beautiful voice plus an engaging and appealing personality. The Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion are played by Alan Michael Carter, Carlton Alexander and Brian Yates Sharber, respectively. They are outstanding in their roles. Mr. Carter gives a killer performance with his dancing, falling about and just plain walking. Mr. Alexander does a wonderful tap number to “Slide Some Oil to Me”; perfect timing, even in that “tin suit”. Mr. Sharber is an excellent cowardly lion and he has a lovely roar.
One of the great moments is the performance of Dawn L. Troupe as Addaperle, the good witch. She gives a grand performance as the bewildered good witch. Another tip top performance is given by Norman Gee. He resembles a young James Brown in wig and cape as he proclaims and shouts about the stage as the Wizard. What is even more wonderful is when he sheds those garments at the end and becomes the exact opposite, a weak and confused man. Dee Dee Bridgewater, as Glinda, is a beauty and she has a lovely voice.
Peter Crompton’s set is simple in a surreal way. It is a series of cartoonlike sets. The Kansas set has a regular sized front part of the house that moves around during the tornado. Great dancers "play" the tornado to good effect. The Emerald City set is cartoonish, but it works well with the musical. The music is on a Moog Synthesizer that includes woodwinds, brass, percussions and drums. There is also a chorus in the pit.
This may not be the original Wizard of Oz, but this production is an upbeat experience filled with impressive stunts and exceptional singing and dancing.
The Wiz ran through July 15th. The next production is Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along which opens on August 13 and run through September 15, 2001.