Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
While the thought of an African-American reimagining of L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was surprising at the time, it's part of an ongoing history since the novel was published in 1900; the first stage musical version opened on Broadway in 1903, long before the iconic 1939 movie. Director Kent Gash has grounded his version of Oz in a kaleidoscopic vision of everything he calls "unapologetically black."
After a tornado literally upends the upper floor of the Kansas farmhouse where Dorothy (Ines Nassara) lives with her Aunt Em (Monique Midgette) and Uncle Henry (Jaysen Wright), Jason Sherwood's scenic design places Dorothy's arrival in a Munchkinland inspired by the nightlife of 1940s Harlem; later, the self-promoting Wiz himself (Jobari Parker-Namdar) suggests Prince in his sequined purple (and green, of course) frock coat over a jumpsuit. Rui Rita's lighting design and Clint Allen's jolting projections reach beyond the proscenium and into the audience.
Nassara conveys steadfastness and hard-won optimism during her trip, matched by the always reliable Kevin McAllister as a soulful Tinman, Hasani Allen as a sweet-natured and rubber-legged Scarecrow, and Christopher Michael Richardson as the Lion, outwardly pompous and condescending, inwardly "just a big pussycat."
Gash has assembled a talented 11-member cast, along with a small ensemble, which means most of the performers play numerous roles. The movement never stopsdancers personify the tornado that carries Dorothy to Oz; four strutting actors with gold staffs represent the Yellow Brick Roadand choreographer Dell Howlett shows a sure hand with all of it, from tap to modern ballet.
Midgette arguably has the most to do and carries it off, nailing her portrayals of not only down-to-earth Aunt Em but also Addaperle, the flighty Good Witch of the North, and Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, who in this version is the despotic head of a candy empire. Instead of dour black, Evillene wears a red dress appliqued with oversized bonbons on the skirtmore magic from costume designer Kara Harmon, who has also decked out the flying monkeys in sleek red leather suits and the regal Glinda (Awa Sal Secka) in African-inspired robes.