BWW Review: All Hail THE WIZ at TUTS
THE WIZ has been mesmerizing theatregoers for more than 40 years. On October 21, 1974, the musical opened at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland. Shortly after, it headed to Broadway where a young star by the name of Stephanie Mills hit the world by storm with her pint-sized stature and a voice that filled the walls of the Majestic Theatre. And this month marks the 40-year anniversary of the groundbreaking movie that starred Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man, and Ted Ross as the Lion. Rounding out this historic cast was Mabel King, reprising her role as Evillene from the Broadway production starring Richard Pryor and the incomparable Lena Horne.
We fast forward the clock and it's 2018 in Houston, Texas, at the height of the 2018 primary election. Thankfully, there's an escape from the tumultuous political climate where blue and red are the subject. Today, the color is green.
The ensemble makes a very jovial entrance clad in their Sunday best. Dorothy (Salome B. Smith) wears a plaid skirt and denim jacket with a graphic t-shirt while Aunt Em (Yvette Monique Clark) wears a powdered pink Donna Vinci-inspired number. Clark sings "The Feeling We Once Had" beautifully, but her performance isn't heartfelt. There's no denying her vocal ability, but it lacked the nuance and tenderness necessary. It didn't give me that warm apple pie feeling this moment calls for.
However, one thing I love about the structure of this piece is how fast it moves from moment to moment. "Tornado" is always a favorite. I love the ingredients Byron Easely uses in his choreographic gumbo: The costume inspired by the majorette uniforms found at Historically Black Colleges and Universities; the dancers en pointe; the ode to Aunt Viv's dance class on THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR. Easley skillfully creates new movement that works well for this production. The HBCU majorette style is all the rave in the mainstream music world. This style has been around for decades and was recently given mainstream attention by the hit Lifetime Television show "Bring It" with Dianna Williams and the Dancing Dolls. The most noted moment of this style was seen during Beyoncé's Coachella performance to the newly released song "Dose" by Ciara. This 8-count style of dance found its home in the black gay clubs and now is a cornerstone of dance history and pop culture.
But then we're in Munchkinland and I'm disappointed. The inflated Teletubby costume was a miss and not my favorite choice made by costume designer Dede Ayite. Nevertheless, Addaperle (Simone Gundy) made an entrance not like any other. With her braided headpiece and gold neck jewelry reminiscent of the Ndebele Tribe, this look from head to toe was fashion forward and could be seen on a runway. The flowing colorful print was whimsical and fit the Addaperle to perfection. Now her sister's presence was a bit confusing. Continuity is a device in theatre that needs to be clear. Obviously, Evermean the wicked Witch of the East was a tap dancer based on projected visual, but the silver sequin Chuck Taylors Dorothy took from her didn't match the image. "Soon as I get Home" sung by Smith was very well placed in her vocal and very reminiscent of Stephanie Mills. "I was Born on the Day Before Yesterday" was vocally energetic and skillfully performed by Christopher Campbell. The Elizabethan ruffle on the character was confusing. Seeing as I know the show, I knew this character was for the Scarecrow but with the colorful braids, neck ruffle, doublet and pumpkin breeches the character's court jester appearance was disjointed. However, I love the homage to Michael Jackson with the character wearing one rhinestone glove. And I love the avant-garde take on the crows in the background. They are reminiscent of the thought provoking work of Costume Designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers. (Edward Scissorhands and Star Wars)
"Ease on Down the Road" began and the dancers strutted on like it was the Labor Day Classic Battle of the Bands. I lived for this moment. They were dressed in bold and breathtaking gold sequin tuxedo jackets, wearing shimmery toast tights, and throwing 8-counts to the gawds. All dancers, men and women, were in leotards and it works. I loved the androgynous flare Director Robert O'Hara adds in this moment.
THE WIZ is kind of like a Shakespearean play, you can either stick to what was done by making it a period piece or you can breathe life into a classic using relevant mediums and social dance to appeal to the masses.
My favorite moment in this production was watching the 6-man pit chorus in the box seats. This could come off as a distraction but with the expertly placed lightning and mic levels these six sangers--notice I said sangers, not singers--stole the show. Lead by Houston's own Teacake Ferguson and Roenia A. Thompson these H-town homegirls were serving you Supreme realness and Pipp perfection. These 6 sangers weren't just singing, there was a visceral connection to what they were singing and I couldn't keep my eyes off of them. Kudos to O'Hara for making this decision to have the pit sangers visible. This was definitely a treat. Other breakout performances were that of Paris Nix who played the Tinman. His rendition of "Slide Some Oil to Me" would make Nipsey Russell smile with glee. This triple threat didn't skimp on the pizzazz either. He held that tap choreography down while ad-libbing in a cartwheel. I loved his Cyborg-esque look. This was another show-stopping moment. The business is the business and I understand casting out of town talent is the norm with many regional theatres but the home grown talent here is Houston is alive and kicking!
The Mean ol' Lion-ness lacked luster for me. I love genderbending when it essentially works. Cohesively the decisions have to work and the text can't get in the way. Yes, it was funny after the third time but we all know a lioness doesn't have a mane and there are few references that we can say about the Queen of the Jungle. Musically, the dark and rich baritone texture was needed on "Be a Lion" but I have to give it to Allyson Kaye Daniel and Salome B. Smith, those harmonies were nice to hear. What is there to say about Broadway legend Marva Hicks. She slayed from start to finish, rockin' green sequin cigarette pants and working the green cape. Again Nix pulled on our heartstrings with "If I Could Feel" and was backed up by the Pit singers killing it in the balcony. This was a moment!
Aesthetically "No Bad News" was a hit with Evillene sitting on a huge high heel shoe. The homage to Queen Elizabeth I in this dress was the highlight of this moment but the actors' performance was stagnant and literally didn't move. She sang from the shoe the entire time and didn't command the moment physically. Yes, she sang to the gawds again but more was needed from this iconic moment in the show. The "I don't want nobody messing with me in these streets!" line shows you that this piece is open for interpretation. The choreographer of this production hands down used many genres to physically tell this story with hip-hop tutting, social dances such as the Bloc Boy JB "Shoot" and the ever famous black wedding/backyard cookout dance the Harlem Shuffle. I think "A Rested Body" is one of the most underrated songs in this score. Clark's vocals on this sultry song are beautifully delivered from note to note.
All in all, this is a great production. From the B3 Hammond Organ riffs in "Believe" this production was beautifully black and has a mass appeal that any lover of this story would salivate over. As I say, these are just the two cents, spend them how you see fit! Ease on down the road to the Hobby Center to THE WIZ now until November 4.