Berkeley Playhouse Wraps Fifth Season with THE WIZ, Now thru 8/25

Berkeley Playhouse closes its fifth season with the Tony Award-winning musical THE WIZ. Kimberly Dooley(Lucky Duck, Seussical, The Musical, Once On This Island) directs and choreographs this soulful re-imagining of L. Frank Baum's family classicThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz, featuring a cast of 46. THE WIZ plays today, July 13 through August 25 (Press opening: July 13) at the Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley. For tickets ($17-60) and more information, the public may visit berkeleyplayhouse.org or call 510-845-8542x351.

In THE WIZ, Dorothy gets swept away by a tornado and ends up in the land of Oz. There, she learns that the only way she can get home again is to see the magical Wiz in the Emerald City. Along the way, she meets a Scarecrow made of garbage who wants a brain, a Tin Man who wants a heart, and a Lion who wants courage, and together they set off down the Yellow Brick Road to seek help from the all-powerful Wiz. This stage classic about the power of believing in yourself features such soul-stirring songs as "Home," "The Feeling We Once Had," "If You Believe," "No Bad News," and "Ease On Down the Road."

THE WIZ opened on Broadway in 1975 and closed in 1979, after four years and 1,672 performances. THE WIZ was Ken Harper's brainchild. He was the program affairs director at WPIX Radio in the early 1970s and hit upon the idea of an all-black version of The Wizard of Oz. A retelling of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the context of African American culture, THE WIZ, featuring music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls and a book by William F. Brown, won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The musical went on to have revivals in New York, London, San Diego and the Netherlands; an off-Broadway Encores! concert version was staged in June 2009. A film adaptation produced by Motown and Universal Pictures was released in 1978, directed by Sidney Lumet, and starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Mabel King, Theresa Merritt, Thelma Carpenter, Lena Horne, and Richard Pryor. Along with musicals like Purlie (1971) and Raisin (1974), THE WIZ was a breakthrough for Broadway, a large-scale big-budget musical featuring an all-black cast. It laid the foundation for later African-American hits likeBubbling Brown Sugar, Dreamgirls, and Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies.

"THE WIZ is a wild and wonderful fantasy," said director and choreographer Kimberly Dooley. "The search for meaning and belonging, and the people by your side that make your journey meaningful, are the personal themes that resonate for me. There's a reason why 'there's no place like home' continues to permeate our stories, anecdotes and lessons. This show is a celebration of a classic story told through the rich, soulful music of the African American culture during the 1970s. The whole piece sings, moves, and dances; I see it as a big burst of heart and soul." Continued Dooley, "Being comfortable with our own unique identities is more important than ever. We live in a glorious, incredibly diverse community; the challenge can be figuring out how you fit into it, and being comfortable on your path there. I think this show is a celebration of that journey in every way."

Berkeley Playhouse is honored to partner with Habitat for Humanity during the run of THE WIZ. "This show is so much about 'home,' what better organization to represent that than Habitat for Humanity," said Berkeley Playhouse founding Artistic Director Elizabeth McKoy. "For 37 years, Habitat has built more than 400,000 homes all over the world, often rebuilding entire communities after natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the tornados in Oklahoma; we are pleased to partner with such an incredible organization."

Berkeley Playhouse will host a "Nickels for Nails" fund drive throughout the run of THE WIZ, and members of the cast, crew, and Berkeley Playhouse community will volunteer to help build homes in Oakland this summer. Additionally, patrons who donate to the "Nickels for Nails" drive will receive 10-20% off tickets, and those who volunteer their time with Habitat for Humanity will receive free ticket offers from Berkeley Playhouse. Families that Habit has recently, or is currently helping, will also be invited to attend performances of THE WIZ.

Kimberly Dooley directs and choreographs THE WIZ. For Berkeley Playhouse, she directed the company's hit main stage productions Lucky Duck, Seussical, The Musical, and Once On This Island, and the conservatory productions of Carnival, Mulan, and Pippin. In addition to directing, Dooley has also choreographed several Berkeley Playhouse productions and has worked as a teaching artist with the company. She is a company member with Shotgun Players, where she co-created and directed the Shotgun Theatre Lab production Eat, a documentary-style play based on interviews and research around eating in America. Other Bay Area credits include roles at Broadway by the Bay and Pacific Repertory Theatre.

Tal Ariel provides musical direction for THE WIZ. A pianist, producer, composer, arranger and teacher, Ariel performs with various artists, and has composed several film scores. Credits for Berkeley Playhouse include the company's hit production of Seussical, The Musical.

THE WIZ features a talented ensemble of professional adult actors, as well as youth actors trained in the Berkeley Playhouse Conservatory professional internship programs. Vernon Bush returns to Berkeley Playhouse as The Wiz; he previously starred in the company's hit production ofWilly Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Bush is a singer, songwriter, musician, and recording artist. He worked closely with the late Whitney Houston as well as jazz legend Nancy Wilson. Additionally, he has opened for artists including Gladys Knight, Stanley Jordan, Mickey Hart, and Michael Franti & Spearhead, and has toured all over the world. He is a member of the a cappella group SoVoSo and is also a featured vocalist with the Glide Ensemble Choir at the world-renowned Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco.

Taylor Jones makes her main stage debut at Berkeley Playhouse as Dorothy in THE WIZ; she was a part of the company's recent developmental reading of the musical Bridges. Additional credits include productions at Pacific Coast Repertory (Rent), Center REPertory Company (Spring Awakening, Lucky Stiff, Smokey Joe's Café), Diablo Theatre Company (Legally Blonde), and Contra Costa Musical Theatre (Little Shop of Horrors).

Reggie D. White returns to Berkeley Playhouse as the Tin Man in THE WIZ; he previously appeared in the company's productions of The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella, Born and Raised, and Annie. Additional credits include productions at San Jose Repertory Theatre, TheatreWorks, Marin Theatre Company, San Francisco Mime Troupe, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, among others. He is a company member at Impact Theatre and PlayGround, and was most recently seen in the West Coast Premiere of The Bereaved at Crowded Fire Theater.

Benjamin Pither returns to Berkeley Playhouse as the Lion in THE WIZ; he previously appeared in the company's productions of Lucky Duck andSeussical, The Musical. Additional credits include productions at Center REPertory Company (Lucky Stiff, All Shook Up), foolsFURY, New Conservatory Theatre Center, Virago Theatre Company, Willows Theatre Company, Altarena Playhouse, Custom Made Theatre Company, and 42nd Street Moon; he will appear at American Conservatory Theater this fall in 1776

Aejay Mitchell returns to Berkeley Playhouse as the Scarecrow in THE WIZ; he was last seen in the company's production of Guys and Dolls. Additional credits include productions at Inferno Theatre and Ragged Wing Ensemble. He also performed with San Francisco's Man Dance Company in On Broadway as the 2012 Youth Competition Award winner.

Sarah Mitchell returns to Berkeley Playhouse as Evilene in THE WIZ; she previously appeared in the Berkeley Playhouse productions of Guys and Dolls and Seussical, The Musical. Additional credits include productions at New Conservatory Theatre Center (Lips Together, Teeth Apart), Shotgun Players (Beardo, The Farm, The Norman Conquests), San Francisco Playhouse (Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party), and Cutting Ball Theater (...And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi). She is a company member of Killing My Lobster.

Amy Lizardo makes her Berkeley Playhouse debut as Addaperle in THE WIZ. Recent credits include The Merry Wives of Windsor at African-American Shakespeare Company, Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Boxcar Theatre, and A Midsummer Night's Dream with San Francisco Shakespeare Festival Shakespeare on Tour and Marin Shakespeare Company.

William F. Brown (Book) is an American playwright best known for writing the book for the musical THE WIZ (1974), for which he received a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. Brown's other works for the stage include The Girl in the Freudian Slip (1967), based on his 1959 novel, How to Steal an Election (1968), A Single Thing in Common (1978), and A Broadway Musical with Lee Adams and Charles Strouse. Other plays include Damon's Song, Twist, The Nutley Papers, and numerous revues. His work for television includes episodes of That Was The Week That Was, Love American Style, and As the World Turns. Brown was also a cartoonist who wrote and drew the syndicated comic strip,Boomer. Books include Tiger, Tiger! (1950), Beat Beat Beat (1959), The Girl in the Freudian Slip (1959), The Abominable Showmen (1960), and The World Is My Yo-Yo (1963).

Charlie Smalls (Music and Lyrics) was an African-American composer and songwriter, best known for writing the music for THE WIZ. A musical prodigy, Smalls attended the Juilliard School at age 11. After graduating from the High School of Performing Arts, Smalls toured as a pianist with the New York Jazz Repertory Company; he also toured with Hugh Masekela, Harry Belafonte, Esther Morrow, and others. He wrote a song for John Cassavetes' 1968 film Faces called "Never Felt Like This Before," as well as the score for the 1976 film, Drum. Smalls won the 1975 Tony Award for Best Score for his work on THE WIZ. He died in 1987 at the age of 43 during emergency surgery to repair a burst appendix. At the time of his death, Smalls was working on a new musical, Miracles, a musical adaptation of The Man Who Could Work Miracles by H.G. Wells.

L. Frank Baum was born on May 15, 1856, in Chittenango, New York. In 1900, Baum wrote one of the most famous works of children's literature,The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, later known as The Wizard of Oz. Baum enjoyed a comfortable upbringing as the son of a barrel factory owner who also had some success in the oil business. In his 40s, after stints as a newspaper journalist and businessman, Baum started writing for children, discovering a talent for storytelling from the nursery rhymes and tales he told his four sons. In 1897, he published his first collection for young readers, Mother Goose in Prose, which was illustrated by Maxfield Parish, soon followed by the hugely popular Father Goose, His Book, which became the top-selling children's title of 1899 and featured illustrations by W. W. Denslow.

In 1900, Baum introduced readers to a fantastical land filled with witches, munchkins, and a girl named Dorothy from Kansas in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Two years later, he transformed his fairy tale into a successful Broadway musical. In 1910, Baum moved his family to Hollywood, California, where he worked to bring his stories to the big screen. In declining health in 1918, Baum spent the last year of his life confined in bed; just days before his birthday, Frank Baum died on May 6, 1919; Glinda of Oz was the last title he wrote for the Oz series. In addition to his Oz books, Baum wrote more children's titles under an array of pseudonyms. 20 years after his death, a new film version of his classic tale appeared on the big screen. The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Ray Bolger, and Frank Morgan, debuted in 1939; it went on to become one of the most watched movies in cinema history.

Berkeley Playhouse was founded in 2007 by Artistic Director Elizabeth McKoy, a professional theater actor, director, and teacher for over 25 years. Under the artistic guidance of McKoy, and Managing Director Lauren Hewitt, Berkeley Playhouse is a professional theater for all ages that presents a season of year-round musicals, providing children and families with unique and sophisticated musical theater experiences. In addition, Berkeley Playhouse has a music theater conservatory which offers a range of educational instruction classes in music performance skills. In 2009, Berkeley Playhouse made its permanent performance home at the historic Julia Morgan Theatre in Berkeley.

Photo by Larry Abel



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