Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's recent review of See How They Run
The story hits most of the main plot points from L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," which featured Dorothy finding herself whisked away from Kansas to the vibrant land of Oz. There, she meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion, as well as Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West, on her journey to find her way back home.
The Wiz is an entertaining musical, infused with the 1970s Motown vibe that gave Baum's timeless story a fresh, funky, and updated twist when it first premiered. The score by Charlie F. Smalls (with contributions from Luther Vandross and Timothy Graphenreed) features several strong ballads and a few toe-tapping tunes along with several numbers that are entirely forgettable and slow the show down. Amber Ruffin's changes to William F. Brown's original book streamlines the narrative, focusing on linking the characters' journeys (all now due to the Wicked Witch) and attempts to draw upon the messages embedded in the ballads.
While the book's jokes may be average and the plot schematic, director Schele Williams brings a tornado of energy, exuberance, and R&B vibes to this classic and beloved tale. The choreography by JaQuel Knight, known for his work with Beyoncé, is fresh, fun, and often explosive. The dance ensemble, portraying various elements from the winds of the tornado to the citizens of Oz, deliver athletically outstanding performances. However, while the production showcases remarkable talent and a contemporary flair, it lacks sensitivity and emotion. If you're coming to party with Dorothy and her friends, you'll likely have a fun time, but if you're looking for that emotional connection to Dorothy and her journey to discover that there is no place like home, you won't find it here.
Fortunately, the entire cast deliver high-energy performances. Nichelle Lewis's warm and bright portrayal of Dorothy anchors the production with vocals that hit some impressively high notes. Melody A. Betts delivers a memorable performance as both Aunt Em and Evillene with powerhouse renditions of "The Feeling We Once Had" and "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News."
Avery Wilson as the Scarecrow, Phillip Johnson Richardson as the Tinman, and Kyle Ramar Freeman as the Lion, boast impressive vocal prowess and charisma and form a tight quartet with Lewis. Deborah Cox shines as the luminous Glinda, while Alan Mingo Jr. injects humor into the role of the Wiz. (Wayne Brady is set to take over the titular role in a few weeks for the remainder of the stops on the tour as well as when the production moves to Broadway.)
The visual aspects pull out all the stops with a vibrant color palette, starting with black and white for Kansas and exploding into a kaleidoscope of hues for Oz. The imaginative physical sets by Hannah Beachler, combined with dynamic digital moving backgrounds by Daniel Brodie that are impressively detailed, create a visually stunning backdrop for the musical journey. The costumes by Sharen Davis add a touch of otherworldly magic with imaginative designs. Kirk Cambridge Del-Pesche's makeup adds some fun touches. The lighting by Ryan J. O'Gara derives gorgeous scene images. While the sound design by Jon Weston is nice and loud, there are some moments when the main vocals are washed out by the ensemble or are lost in the large Gammage venue.
The Broadway-bound revival of The Wiz takes the beloved musical to new heights by embracing the heart of what made it special: its soul-stirring score, explosive vibrant dance numbers, and having an all-Black cast portray these iconic characters. The touring production features a cast with powerhouse vocals and rich and colorful creative elements. While about a third of the score is forgettable and I wish the book revisions had found a way to add more emotion to the show, the result of this 50th anniversary production is a dazzling feast for the eyes and ears, blending contemporary elements with a seventies spirit, which honors the legacy of this iconic musical while creating a vibrant and inviting experience for a new generation of theatregoers.
The Wiz runs through January 7, 2024, at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.asugammage.com or call 480-965-3434. For information on the tour, visit wizmusical.com
Book by William F. Brown