Review: THE WIZ at The 5th Avenue Theatre

The magical OZ adaptation comes to the 5th.

By: Nov. 28, 2022
Review: THE WIZ at The 5th Avenue Theatre
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Review: THE WIZ at The 5th Avenue Theatre
Nate Tenenbaum (Lion), Kataka Corn (Dorothy),
Be Russell (The Wiz), Nehemiah Hooks (Scarecrow),
Phillip Attmore (Tinman) and the cast of The Wiz.
Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka

L. Frank Baum's classic fantasy "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" is the gift that just keeps on giving. From its 1901 origins to the 1939 iconic film to any number of sequels, movies, and even a Broadway musical or two, we always seem to want to hear more and more about the magical land of Oz. And no small part of those tales is the fabulous William F. Brown and Charlie Smalls, Tony Award winning musical, "The Wiz" from 1974. And now the 5th Avenue Theatre has brought this green gem to vivid life with their current delightful production.

It's the same Oz tale but with a decidedly African American bent, but it's still the story we all know. Dorothy (Kataka Corn), a wide-eyed young girl, is swept up from her home in Kansas by a tornado and dropped into the magical land of Oz. To get home she's sent along the yellow brick road to meet with the Wiz (Be Russell) and along the way she meets the Scarecrow (Nehemiah Hooks), who longs for a brain, the Tin Man (Phillip Attmore), who years for a heart, and the Lion (Nate Tenenbaum), who wants some courage. They join Dorothy on the way to Emerald City to meet with The Wiz but along the way are plagued by spooky adversaries, not the least of which is Evilene, The Wicked Witch of the West (Shaunyce Omar).

But this is not the 1939 musical. You will hear no "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", instead you get the absolutely gorgeous "Soon As I Get Home". I should also say that this is not the 1978 film version of "The Wiz", that I personally was obsessed with and watched and listened to way too many times. The core of it is still there but some song differences or story changes might throw you a bit if you're only familiar with the movie. And why wouldn't you be since, sadly, the show is not done a lot. Oh sure, there was that live version they did on TV a few years back, but don't get me started on that (or really any of those live broadcasts).

But song/story/version changes aside, this production at the 5th Avenue is wonderful. It didn't completely blow me away like I wanted it to but it's a fantastic time and a great outing for the family during the holidays. My main problem with it is that it's safe. Director and choreographer Kelly Foster Warder has given us a thoroughly decent and passable version, but it lacks some of the grit that, say, the movie gave us. The storytelling is good, but doesn't move the audience as it should (at least it didn't for me). The choreography is nice, but it doesn't make you move in your seat (except for one number, but we'll get to that in a minute). And for a seldom done show like this I would have liked to have seen more of those stops pulled out to make this something truly magical.

Review: THE WIZ at The 5th Avenue Theatre
Nate Tenenbaum as Lion (foreground)
and Phillip Attmore as Tinman and
Kataka Corn as Dorothy (background) in The Wiz.
Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka

Having said that, the cast is stupendous. Corn is delightful as the dreamer, Dorothy, but started off a bit weak in the role. The aforementioned "Soon As I Get Home" didn't give me that longing for home I expected and was more like a "to do" list of things they wanted to do once they got there. But they certainly picked it up as they went along and by the time their travelling companions joined in, they brought the power. Especially with the finale reprise of "Home".

And speaking of those companions, awesome! Hooks as the Scarecrow brings some adorability to our brainless friend and his bones seem to be made of rubber with his insane dance moves. I honestly don't think we could have asked for better. Alternatively, Attmore as the Tin Man makes the most of his metallic frame with some show stopping tap routines. Choreography at the level I would have liked to see in other areas. But again, couldn't have asked for a better Tin Man. And then there's the Lion, gifted to us by the always amazing Tenenbaum. If the Scarecrow is made of rubber and the Tin Man, well, tin, then the insides of this Lion must be marshmallow fluff as you just wanted to eat him up. In any version of "The Wiz", the lion is key for me as he has one of my favorite songs, "I'm a Mean Ole Lion". And Tenenbaum brought it like no other, giving the original Lion, Ted Ross, a run for his money. Powerhouse voice, killer moves, and comedic timing of a master and, again, we could not have asked for better.

Review: THE WIZ at The 5th Avenue Theatre
Shauynce Omar as Evillene in
The Wiz at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka

Then we turn to the magical, or not really magical in one case, ladies of the show. The three witches we meet were superb. Sarah Russell as our first good witch, Addaperle, certainly brought in the glitz and nailed our introduction to Oz. Trina Mills as Glinda, our final good witch, makes her lone appearance at the end of the show, but what an ending as she channeled her inner Diana Ross for "Believe in Yourself". But it was the third witch, Omar as the wicked Evilene that slayed with her "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News". No surprise since she's always amazing but here she put even more of her signature sass on it all. And then there's the not so magical Wizard, Be Russell. I say not so magical, but in character only, as she brought to vibrant life this huckster and even made her sympathetic. And of course that voice, wow!

The costumes from Jarrod Barnes are truly a magical sight to behold and when complimented by the wigs and makeup from Kelley Jordan, the look of each and every character in the piece is spot on perfect. The set from Eli Sherlock is visually stunning but seemed a bit clunky at times especially during a few rather lengthy transitions. Transitions that were artfully covered by music director S. Renee Clark, along with the rest of the music. Although, as usual, the 5th Avenue needs to work on their sound mixing as the orchestra often overshadows the vocals. But that's an old complaint of mine.

The show, on the whole, is a winner and worth seeing especially since "The Wiz" doesn't get revived enough. It may have started off a little light, but the power and glory of the show shone through by the end. Even though, it could have gone even higher into the stratosphere. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give The 5th Avenue Theatre's production of "The Wiz" a "fun and spirited grand ole time even without blowing the silver slippers off my feet" YAY-. If you're unfamiliar with the show or even if you're only familiar with the movie, you need to rectify that, and this production fills that task quite well.

"The Wiz" performs at the 5th Avenue Theatre through December 23rd. For tickets or information visit them online at www.5thavenue.org.




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