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The Wiz

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Ashanti and LaChanze (and Nigel as the dog).
Photo by Robert J. Saferstein.

Yellow is the perfect color for summer, and there's hardly a place to get a richer dose of it than City Center, which is currently housing a nearly perfect choice for its Encores! Summer Stars series, The Wiz.

No, "perfect" and this show - and, to some extent, this production - are not concepts that fit together easily. But by the standards of this new series, put on by the folks behind the Encores! concert stagings of older musicals, The Wiz is tops. It displays and delivers an energy, a completeness, and a commitment that neither of the previous Summer Stars outings, Gypsy in 2007 and Damn Yankees in 2008, showed. If there's an unmistakable whiff of summer stock hurriedness about the whole thing - especially its game but less-than-ideal leading lady - the stakes are so low and the entertainment so plentiful that it seldom matters.

This is not to say that William F. Brown and Charlie Smalls's 1975 musical is any sort of a classic. It's really not much more than a fully functioning and precisely predictable African-American translation of L. Frank Baum's timeless 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But it bursts with cleverness and daring that most of today's anemic adaptations tend to lack: Librettist Brown and composer-lyricist Smalls truly transformed the white-bred Baum into something hip, funky, and inventive enough to compel you to set aside - if only for a couple of hours - the irreplaceable original and its even more iconic 1939 film.

And, yes, everything you know, love, and might have forgotten is here. The little Kansan girl Dorothy, who's sucked away to the magical land of Oz in the funnel of a tornado. The witches she meets (and occasionally kills), both good and bad, and the magic slippers everyone wants. The Scarecrow, Tinman, and (cowardly) Lion she meets on her trip to the enigmatic miracle granter in the lustrous Emerald City. Munchkins, Winkies, and flying monkeys. The sorrow and eventual elation that ensue when Dorothy's exit strategy doesn't turn out exactly as she planned. Even the Baumian field mice, Kalidahs, and special green glasses that didn't quite make it into the movie.

Yet it's all thoroughly, delightfully tweaked. The homey but two-dimensional landscape of Kansas where Dorothy's Aunt Em and Uncle Henry hold court pales compared to the vivid, exciting, and determinedly downtown Oz; those mice are police officers. The score appropriates, but never mocks or dissociates, jive, soul, blues, spiritual, and even gospel stylings for a songstack of fluid and surprising distinction: You probably know the traveling song "Ease on Down the Road" and the redemptive "Home," but the Tinman's super-slick tap number "Slide That Oil to Me" is every bit their equal - and most of the others are, if less than absolutely memorable, solidly tuneful in the moment. And, most importantly, a libretto that never lets the story's latent spunk be crushed under the weight of all the updating.

Of course, the show has its share of construction problems. For all the build-up of the Wicked Witch of the West (here named Evillene), her menacing and dispatching are confined to only a few minutes of stage time. The second act is very short, yet crammed with musical numbers that don't expand much on the action. (Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, gets two lengthy back-to-back showstoppers.) And there's an unease to the overall assembly that suggests the creators preferred making alterations to making sure the outfit flawlessly caressed every contour.

Even so, the show has been rendered quite well here, led by director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and musical director Alex Lacamoire (conducting the typically excellent Encores! Orchestra), all who also collaborated on In the Heights. They and set designer David Korins, costume designer Paul Tazewell, and lighting designer Ken Billington capture plenty of urban charm that highlights the danger and the wonder of the shabby-chic Oz in equal measure. Kail and Blankenbuehler should watch that they don't repeat themselves too often: Kail's staging occasionally seems distant and unpolished, as it did with In the Heights, and many of Blankenbuehler's dances look as distractingly busy as they did in that show and in the recently opened 9 to 5. Still, it all works - even the minor script revisions (by Tina Tippit) that help shake off a few grains of 34-year-old dust.

Ashanti with Christian White and Joshua Henry .
Photo by Robert J. Saferstein.

The same is true of the largely winning cast: Christian Dante White's loose-limbed Scarecrow is a subdued one, but nonetheless fresh and friendly; Joshua Henry is a hearty and agile joy as the rust-prone Tinman; and James Monroe Iglehart brings the perfect amount of false bluster to the too-timid Lion. Tichina Arnold makes a fabulously glamorous Evillene, and Orlando Jones is all glittering smoothness as The Wiz himself.

Alas, the billed star of the evening is not entirely up to her role's demands. The Grammy Award-winning Ashanti looks just right for Dorothy - young, optimistic, and energetic - but doesn't infuse her with the desperation, curiosity, or unconditional love she needs to compel as the show's sympathetic center. Her line readings are often stilted and static, and her voice, while appropriately accomplished by the standards of most of the pop world, is neither big nor interesting enough to fill the cavernous City Center - even with heavy micing. Ashanti seems as lost onstage as Dorothy initially does in Oz.

Should she wish to continue her exploration in musical theatre, however, she need only look to her Aunt Em for inspiration. LaChanze, who won a Tony (if few hearts) for her 2005 turn in The Color Purple, is back in top form here as both Em and Glinda, marvelously warm singing to Dorothy of the feelings and family that are - and should be - so important. She comes across as the very embodiment of contemporary musical theatre: connected not just to her lines, lyrics, and costars, but the audience, too. That artistry ensures that, while you're watching her, you're not just hearing what she's expressing - you're feeling it.

Ashanti would do well to study up on that kind of technique. Luckily, the rest of the show needs no such help. If The Wiz isn't a great show, as a beacon of merriment and color amid a New York that's as cold and grey as the economy, it's hard to imagine a greater pick-me-up right now.

The Wiz - An Encores! Summer Stars production.
Through July 5
City Center Mainstage, New York City Center, 130 West 56th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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