Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Wiz
Children's Theatre Company / Penumbra Theatre
Review by Kit Bix | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Dead Man Walking, Cardboard Piano, and Frederick Douglass Now

Dwight Leslie, Dennis Spears, and Paris Bennett
Photo by Dan Norman
The friend with whom I went to see The Wiz last weekend had the solid luck as a kid of seeing the original 1975 Broadway production, starring Stephanie Mills. If that name rings a bell, you are probably a) a person of a certain age, b) a musical theater buff, or c) someone who listens to Seth Rudetsky's effusive fandom babblings on the "On Broadway" channel on Sirius XM. Or all three. In any case, had I known the friend I'm referring to back in the day, I would probably have turned green as Evillene (or is that Elphaba, per Wicked?) with envy. I was one of the millions of American teenagers who had heard the recording of Mills singing "Home" that year. Mills' bell-like voice started out tender and unassuming and built—and built—to the most thrilling, free, clear, gorgeous, full-bodied belt you ever heard in your life (like Whitney Houston and Idina Menzel rolled into one, only she was a teenager). She sang about the heartache of longing to see the faces of your loved ones again, of needing to go home to people who know you like no one else in the world—and it was holy stuff, like church bells peeling. Stephanie Mills knocked that song out of the park and I the first time I heard it, I was on the edge of my seat through the final note. I probably jumped up and applauded madly at the end even if no one was in the room. It was that kind of stupendous.

The Wiz, whose original title was apparently The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical "Wonderful Wizard of Oz" and was adapted from L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by William F. Brown, with additional material by Tina Tippit, was a smashing success back in the day, winning seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and enjoying a four-year run on Broadway. It was reasonable to expect then that the play would become a standard, enjoying frequent revivals around the country at the sort of theaters that specialize in musicals, and that there would be lots of stagings at high schools and middle schools. Yet this show doesn't seem to be produced with the frequency of similar Broadway musicals of that period. There are probably a lot of reasons why, but I suspect that the shipwreck of a film version, released in 1978 and starring a 33-year-old Diana Ross as Dorothy, didn't help. It's a matter of opinion (like this review, like all reviews), but many people, myself included, felt that Ross was too old for the part (the director wanted to cast Mills) and critics found the movie as a whole to be patchy and poorly conceived. It bombed at the box office (though apparently later developed a cult following) and for a long time the property lost its burnish. It seems to have disappeared, at least until The Wiz Live! resurfaced on NBC in 2015.

Anyhow, it's back! And I tell this story to emphasize just how thrilled I was when Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis announced that they would be staging the The Wiz in a joint production with the Twin Cities' legendary Penumbra Theater. I waited 42 years to see this show, and I was not going to be miss it this time around.

The first thing to say is that the CTC/Penumbra collaboration does not disappoint. That is not to say that it is flawless, but it is witty and sweet and energetic. It's got a hands-down stellar cast led by Paris Bennett and Greta Oglesby, and it's got the fabulous Sanford Moore, an artist at the peak of his abilities, as its musical director. Bennett, who plays Dorothy with a great goofy smile, brings a classic belt to the uptunes and luscious full-bodied singing. Oglesby is delightfully jaded as a cackling Evillene, and Dennis Spears gives the Tin Man a wicked robotic swagger.

In fact, Spears seems to capture the giddy spirit of the original play and the times—The Spirit of '75, if you will. There is something appealingly innocent about this version of the classic tale of a girl who grows bored with life on a Kansas farm and dreams that a twister blows her away to a magical faraway land—in this case, Manhattan—with talking scarecrows and lions afraid of their own shadow. The tinted projections of Coney Island and Chelsea brownstones and Harlem subway stops reminds us that it was a different New York back then: perhaps less glamorous, certainly less orderly, but in some ways more exciting for being utterly unpredictable. The Dorothy of The Wiz is not nearly so melancholy, nor as emotionally vulnerable as Judy Garland is in the movie. She's a bright-eyed explorer, one who wants to get home, yes, but who is also brimming with curiosity and delights in meeting, and dancing with, new friends.

Like many of the characters in The Wiz, Dorothy sings a lot more than she talks: the book consists mainly of clever but very brief scenes that serve primarily to connect one musical number to the next. That's fine, because the key to the show's enormous appeal has to do with its flat-out gorgeous score by Charlie Smalls. How refreshing it is to see a musical where every song sounds different from the one before it, and where so many of the tunes are memorable. You only need to hear "Ease on Down the Road" once and it will be running through your head all week. Was there even one kid in my high school thespian club who didn't recognize the tune to the gospel-like "Home"? If the songs are dope, Sanford Moore has a lot to do with making the music soar in this production. I am not saying that actor-singers like Oglesby and Bennett and Dwight Leslie (as The Scarecrow) don't have terrific pipes; they do. I'd pay to hear them sing without accompaniment. But can we just for a moment pause and reflect on just how smooth and rich and lovely Moore has made so many Twin Cities voices sound over the years? Can I ask, are we giving this local treasure enough love? I mean to say, attention should be paid to Sanford Moore.

There are young kids in the show, too, and the kids in the audience loved seeing them up there. And whenever Evillene came on, they were booing and hissing. I mentioned the Tin Man's swagger, but to reiterate, Spears in his silver suit and his one stiff (unoiled) leg is just on fire up there. I was afraid he was going to melt the witch with just one long slow look.

Now with all this goodness, what could be improved? Well, the choreography could be more ambitious. The large group numbers, which have to factor in the non-dancers, are fine and fun. Patdro Harris adds some witty '70s funk gestures every now and then, and that works. But this score has long instrumental intervals that were designed for serious dancing—serious, complicated, elaborate dance sequences. Harris has assembled a corps of top-notch, well-trained, very capable dancers, and I feel they are a little bit wasted. They are never given the opportunity to really show their stuff. I wanted to see these dancers show what they are capable of, to have a shot at bringing down the house, as the singers do so often in this show. In the end, Harris plays it a little too safe for my tastes.

CTC has an enormous stage with depth and high ceilings, but Vicki Smith's set somehow makes it seem small. I would have preferred a bolder, more deliberate aesthetic. I did love the blown-up photos of New York sights and street scenes that are projected onto a giant upstage scrim. At the same time, some of the other projections—the twister, the flying monkeys—are a little too literal for my taste. Possibly it is just projections fatigue on my part. It sometimes seems that Twin Cities stages are all having a bout of projection fever. When I get to the theatre, I prefer three-dimensionality and depth awareness.

These are trifles though. The Wiz is a wonderful, and wonder-filled, experience for all ages. The music will send you, the story will swell your heart, and the show is, well, wicked good.

The Wiz, through March 18, 2018, at Children's Theatre Company, 2400 3rd Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. For tickets, call 612-874-0400 or visit

Directed by Lou Bellamy
Featuring: Greta Oglesby, Dennis W. Spears, Aimee Bryant, T. Mychael Rambo, Rudolph Searles III, Paris Bennett, Jamecia Bennett, and Dwight Leslie
Assistant Direction and Choreography: Patdro Harris
Music Direction: Sanford Moore
Scenic Design: Vicki Smith
Costume Design: Mathew LeFebvre
Lighting Design: Don Darnutzer
Sound Design: Sten Severson
Projection Design: Craig Gottschalk
Stage Manager: Jenny R. Friend

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