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BWW Review: THE WIZ LIVE! Proves 'Home' is Where the Heart Is; a Star is Born in Shanice Williams

Thanks to Tony-winner Kenny Leon and a delightfully entertaining cast of characters, "Home" is most certainly where the heart is this holiday season. Coming into this year's NBC live musical, theatre fans nationwide were appropriately apprehensive, given the spotty results from THE SOUND OF MUSIC and PETER PAN. However, in THE WIZ LIVE!, we were finally given a production worthy of the show's beloved Broadway legacy. Executive Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan still haven't solved the riddle of recreating a stage show's scope and grandeur on screen without an audience, but with a once-in-a-lifetime star, and one of the most acclaimed casts in recent memory, for the first time since this annual experiment began in 2013, there's truly a reason to rejoice!

Despite the theatrically urban score, and the African-American cast, THE WIZ is still the familiar story of THE WIZARD OF OZ. And, while it is immediately recognizable to fans of the Judy Garland film version, it has more in common with L. Frank Baum's novel than even that classic does.

Shanice Williams in THE WIZ LIVE!
Photo Credit: Virginia Sherwood | NBC

In every way, the story of THE WIZ begins and ends with Dorothy, the spunky Kansas teenager that leads the familiar magical journey along the Yellow Brick Road. With original Dorothy, Stephanie Mills, on hand as Auntie Em, newcomer Shanice Williams had mighty big silver slippers to fill, and fill them she did. Her brightness and authenticity made her an instantly likeable heroine, and her remarkable, soul-stirring voice is the thing upon which theatre lovers hang their dreams.

While occasionally her sassiness seemed to veer into inopportune sexiness, she was a beacon of joy to watch from beginning to end. NBC has rightly pushed the Cinderella story of Williams being found at an open call; and even without knowing much about her beyond that, I was filled with an unexpected sense of pride as she let loose on the big, belted notes of "Soon as I Get Home." While I don't envy anyone trying to step out of Mills' indomitable shadow, Williams just might be the mix of humility and talent to do it. THE WIZ LIVE! will most certainly not be the last that we see of this future (current?) star.

One of the best decisions that Leon made in staging THE WIZ is that he approached it far more like a theatrical production than Rob Ashford had done in the network's previous two live musicals. With THE SOUND OF MUSIC and PETER PAN, Ashford used multiple sets and a multi-cam television approach to set the scenes in Austria, London, and Neverland. However, by allowing all of Oz's beautiful and unique settings to live on one stage, Tony winner Derek McLane was finally able to bring all of his theatrical magic tricks to bear. While some pieces didn't scale as well as others, there is no denying that from the dreamlike poppy fields to the perfectly integrated LED screens, this is a beautiful production built for a stage, if not a little bit sparse.

However, the one main drawback to this approach is that Matthew Diamond, the show's broadcast director, seemed determined to give us as many extreme close-ups, especially during ensemble scenes, as possible. While I understand that at times this was done to hide entrances, exits, and set changes, more often than not, it left me frustrated that I couldn't see what the rest of the phenomenal ensemble was up to on other parts of the stage, especially in large production numbers. In the end though, that frustration just serves as further proof that this is not only a show, but a production, that I would love to see fully realized on stage.

Fortunately, when NBC announced THE WIZ as this year's live broadcast, they also announced their intentions to produce the show on Broadway. While no plans are official, and no casting or creative announcements have been made, it seems clear that from star to design, this is a production intended to ease on down to the Great White Way.

However, even if the luminous Williams transfers with the production, it is unlikely that many, if any, of the star-studded ensemble will go along for the ride, and I don't think that would necessarily hurt a potential future production. Despite an ensemble filled with Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winners, few specifically stood out. None of the featured actors seemed ill at ease in their roles, but few were able to transcend their casting.

Of course, Mills as Auntie Em set an incredibly high standard for the rest to meet. 40 years after she first made her way to Oz, she is still as magical as she ever was. Her voice, though still better than most, is not the "Wow" that it once was, but I truly almost forgot that she was singing during "The Feeling We Once Had." The depth with which she understands this character and this world was unbelievably potent and affective.

Elijah Kelley, Ne-Yo, David Alan Grier, Shanice Williams in THE WIZ LIVE!
Photo Credit: Virginia Sherwood | NBC

The surprise to me was the performance of Ne-Yo as the Tin Man. While his older, Southern affectation took some time to adjust to, the heart (no pun intended) that he showed throughout, and especially on "What Would I Do If I Could Feel," was a revelation for me.

Three-time Tony nominee, David Alan Grier, who had one of the few theatrically clear voices of the group, was a bit underwhelming as the Lion. It was difficult to put a finger on why; perhaps his bulky costume, or a disconnect in timing; but he was only serviceable in a role that I thought would allow him to shine.

Elijah Kelley's Scarecrow was great fun to watch, especially as he stumbled around the stage bow-legged, and he showed a surprising amount of depth given that he was wearing a full-face mask, but he didn't bring much more to the character than what was on the page, especially compared to Ne-Yo.

Traditionally, all of "the friends" have their own reasons for wanting to meet the Wiz, but they don't have an opportunity to truly come together as a team before heading out to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. However, in "We Got It," a new song written specifically for this production by Kelley, Ne-Yo, Harvey Mason Jr., and Stephen Oremus, they have found a wonderful way to bind the group of friends into a family. While some of the lyrics were a bit difficult to pick up on the broadcast, it felt like a natural, and needed, extension of where the story was at that point.

In addition to the A-List "friends," Oz was populated with some talented ringers as well. No one who had even a passing familiarity with GLEE during its six-year run will be surprised by the chops Amber Riley displayed as Addaperle. She provided a wonderful introduction to the Land of Oz; and, on a side note, it's about time for a producer to find a fitting role for her on Broadway.

While I had my doubts about Mary J. Blige as Evillene, she more than held her own. She was by no means the show's bright spot, and she likely screamed over much of the role's humor, but she was far more adept at playing the show's big bad than I expected.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for beloved Broadway standout turned Emmy winner, Uzo Aduba. In this version of the Oz story, Glinda only shows up at the end and sings one song. While Aduba is known for being equally able to belt and handle more legit music, she never seemed to get vocally comfortable with "Believe in Yourself."

Queen Latifah in THE WIZ LIVE!
Photo Credit: Virginia Sherwood | NBC

Finally, Common felt like an odd choice for a role as small as the Emerald City "Bouncer," especially since he played it pretty straight and humorless. Fortunately, once inside we were treated to the wonder that was Queen Latifah's Wiz. The fact that a woman was playing The Great and Powerful Oz was neither a disappointment, nor a distraction. In fact, it brought a decidedly modern sensibility when Dorothy made it quite clear that there is nothing wrong with being a woman. Other than a handful of moments when the keys seemed a little low for a female voice, it felt like a perfect fit to have Latifah in the role. She had both the power and insecurity that the character needs, and after singing the very different "So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard" and "Y'all Got It!" I think the time has come to just admit that there is nothing that Queen Latifah can't do.

Stephanie Mills, Queen Latifah, and Shanice Williams, three generations of African-American actresses, each gave incredibly strong, yet vulnerable performances, and that is essentially what the heart of THE WIZ is; being able to overcome all of the frightening obstacle in your path to find your way to the things that mean the most to you.

The biggest disappointment in the production was Fatima Robinson's choreography. It seemed to be either incredibly intricate or surprisingly simple, and in neither case did it feel natural, or help to tell the story. The "Tornado," "Kalida Battle," and poppies number were all a bit of a jumbled mess, and the group routines seemed oddly presentational. Even modern moves like the Stanky Legg and the Whip and Nae Nae couldn't redeem the choreo.

While there were not as many Broadway regulars in featured roles this year, the ensemble, who did yeoman's work juggling all of the quick-changes, was filled with musical theatre stalwarts like James Brown III, Asmeret Ghebremichael, Capathia Jenkins, Tamika Lawrence, and many, many more, and it was great to pick out favorites in the crowd.

THE WIZ LIVE! was by no means a perfect production, at times it felt like it lacked a certain sharpness and specificity, but when it was at its best, it was something incredibly special. To see a group of African-American performers joyfully singing and dancing while bringing a well-known story to life in a new way was heart-warming, and Harvey Fierstein's updated teleplay felt fresh throughout.

While it would be tough to top the ratings smash of THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE!, I think that the patience NBC has shown to Meron and Zadan has paid off in spades. THE WIZ LIVE! is a magical love letter to those who believe in the power of live theatre. From the breath-taking debut of Shanice Williams to the memorable performances of Stephanie Mills, Ne-Yo, and Queen Latifah, if you missed THE WIZ LIVE! "you owe it to yourself to check it out!"

What did you think of NBC's third live musical? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt. If you want to follow along with my "366 in 366" articles, you can check out #BWW366in366 on Twitter.

Banner Image: Shanice Williams and Stephanie Mills in THE WIZ LIVE! Photo Credit: Virginia Sherwood | NBC

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From This Author Matt Tamanini