Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Although many changes have been made to the original, which premiered on Broadway in 1974 and won seven Tonys including Best Musical, the basics remain the same: Dorothy (played here by the supremely talented Nichelle Lewis) is sucked out of Kansas into the magical land of Oz. True to the film adaptation (both this show and the film are based on the books by L. Frank Baum), the scenes in Kansas are in black and white: a faded facade of a farmhouse, backed by a giant scrim with projections that depict a silo, rolling hills and puffy clouds that look like something Terry Gilliam of Monty Python might have drawn. But when the weather (dancers in flowing blue-grey capes represent the twister) clears and Dorothy finds herself in Oz, the stage explodes in color, thanks to projections by Daniel Brodie, scenic design by Hannah Beachler, and costumes by Sharen Davis. The Emerald City looks like a green-hued cross between a scene out of Blade Runner and a video game.
The original book has been updated by writer-comedian Amber Ruffin, and she has succeeded in making the show feel more contemporary. There are some terrific lines that give the show a comedic sparkle. Early on, when Dorothy sasses her Aunt Em (played by Melody A. Betts, who also portrays Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West), Em looks left and right, as if searching for something. When Dorothy questions this, Aunt Em snaps back, "I'm looking for whoever it is you think you're talking to!" Later, when Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North (Allyson Kaye Daniel) is congratulating Dorothy for flattening the Wicked Witch of the East, she quips "Instead of a coffin, we gonna use a manila envelope." When Dorothy hears the Scarecrow's idea that perhaps he can purchase a brain in the Emerald City, she quips: "You can't buy a brain. A kidney–if you know the right people."
If you're familiar with the movie–and who isn't, really?–and the original musical, you will notice some significant changes here. There's no Toto, no Munchkins, and the Wiz doesn't hide behind a curtain, but instead seems to be the owner of a nightclub. When he sets Dorothy and her trio of newfound friends–Scarecrow (Avery Wilson), Tinman (Phillip Johnson Richardson) and Lion (Kyle Lamar Freeman)–on a quest, it's not to retrieve the witch's broom, as it was in the film, but to straight out kill her.
The cast is mostly excellent, especially in terms of their singing voices. Nichelle Lewis is especially delightful, with an innocent charm that is belied by her powerful voice, which occasionally reaches whistling heights that put me in mind of Minnie Riperton. Deborah Cox is a lovely Glinda, resplendent in a flowing, layered white frock with mirror tiles and gold highlights that help her stand out from the rest of the cast, who are costumed primarily in bright colors and jewels tones. As the Wiz, Wayne Brady makes good use of his million-dollar smile and his warm and inviting vocal tone.
Despite the vocal talents of the cast, there is little variation in the style of singing on display here. It all has a deep R&B feel, with lots of vocal runs and displays of range–which isn't necessarily a bad thing, it just makes for a rather monochromatic (to mix a metaphor) feel to the evening.
The choreography by JaQuel Knight (best known for the music videos for Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" and Cardi B's and Megan Thee Stallion's "WAP") feels vaguely uninspired. Despite the energetic dancing, the moves echo any of a number urban and hip-hop dance tropes. Music supervisor Joseph Joubert also missed an opportunity to add an extra boost of energy in one of the Act Two numbers set in Evillene's lair. Her minions are working away, carrying buckets, much like what one might see a street drummer using. Why not add some drumline-type action? The instruments are there–put them to use!
The crowd at the Golden Gate on opening night seemed to relish the performance, but unlike the absolutely brilliant staging of The Wizard of Oz at ACT this past summer, this revival of The Wiz lacked the raucous energy and glorious imagination of ACT's production.
The Wiz runs through February 11, 2024, at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $55 - $172. For tickets and information, please call the box office at 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com. For more information on the tour, visit https://wizmusical.com.