BWW Review: Lots of Energy and Heart in New Tampa Players' Production of THE WIZ
If you are a regular theatergoer, then I'm sure you've seen this before: A production that starts off okay, far from spectacular, but suddenly blasts off thanks to a single cast member. When this performer appears, he or she elevates the entire show by making every other performer step up his or her game. I'm happy to report that this phenomenon happened last Friday night when I had the pleasure of seeing the New Tampa Players' production of THE WIZ at the University Area CDC.
The show, Charlie Smalls' funky version of The Wizard of Oz that proved quite a sensation in the 1970's, started off decently enough in this recent incarnation. It was fine in its opening scenes, nothing to write home about. Obviously a rather no frills affair, the production seemed a bit messy but full of heart (and heart makes up for a lot).
THE WIZ follows the story of young teen, Dorothy (Carmi Harris), in her search for home and self. Dorothy's Aunt Em, played by the moving Pavonne Scott, sings the show's first song, "The Feeling We Once Had," incredibly well. And then a rather lackluster storm hit, and the young dancers created as much of a whirlwind that they could muster, and I felt for a moment that I was witnessing a rather odd dance recital. As Dorothy wound up in an unknown land, Addaperle the Witch (played hilariously by Janelle Richardson), stormed onstage with pitch-perfect snappy timing, and tackled the song "He's the Wiz" with jubilant zest. And then we arrived at Dorothy's first big solo: "Soon As I Get Home." Carmi Harris possesses a lovely presence and is quite beautiful, but she didn't seem connected to the early moments of the show, nor to this song. She seemed to strain while singing it, and for an instant I thought that we might be in for a long evening.
And then something happened. A miracle of sorts. A miraculous jolt of euphoria by the name of Tron Montgomery.
Montgomery doesn't just play the iconic Scarecrow, he inhabits the part, electrifying the stage, a full-tilt pinball machine zapped to life. His first song, "I Was Born the Day Before Yesterday," becomes a rip-roaring ode to exuberance and brings the show to Lazarus-like life. Montgomery dances as if tomorrow may never come, slipping and sliding and feverishly moonwalking. Soon after that, as if Montgomery had put a spell on Dorothy, I notice that Carmi Harris starts getting stronger, more confident as the show plows forward. By the end of the production, during the bravura final number, "Home," you sense the young actress coming into her own (which makes sense because the character of Dorothy is also coming into her own). She ultimately owns the stage, and by the end, there were tears in many audience members' eyes from the strength of her performance.
And the astounding transformation of the production started with Tron Montgomery's winning turn as the Scarecorw. But wait, there's more. Great performances, some equal to his, kept the show roaring forward. Thomas Williams' Tin Man has a voice that can move mountains. His "Slide Some Down to Me" is nothing short of soul-stirring, inspiring. And then the showstopper of all showstoppers, Michael Jo'Mae's Lion, makes his entrance, and we suddenly have a stunningly entertaining show.
Lion is a comedic masterpiece, blissfully over the top. After his growlingly triumphant rendition of "Be a Lion" on opening night, the audience cheer wildly. Jo'Mae looks at them, breaks character and acknowledges them, and the audience loves it with louder applause. I usually prefer that actors stay in the moment and not break the fourth wall unnecessarily, but this is different. THE WIZ suddenly takes a very different turn here (besides, we can suspend disbelief and imagine that the Lion is bowing to all the critters in the forest heaping loads of love onto him). Whatever the case, in this rare instant, his breaking character works. He along with his brethren, Scarecrow and Tin Man, are quite a talented trifecta. The three actors portraying these larger than life beings are so good, so full of life and love, that they make this a must-see production.
But that's not all. We also have a mightily talented Dwuany Cannon, Jr. as a scene-stealing Wiz and NaTasha McKeller as a flamboyant, eye-rolling and eely Evilliene the Wicked Witch. And the show ends with Pavonne Scott as Glinda singing the glorious "Believe in Yourself," and then Harris' aforementioned homerun of a song, "Home."
Whew, what a show! And on top of those great performances, there were so many young people (ages 4 or so to 18) filling the stage, always staying in character, entering from the wings with pizzazz (never once looking out to the audience for their parents, as I have seen child actors do before), and obviously finding a new home in the theatre (as this reviewer also found as a youngster). It's so refreshing, heartwarming, to witness.
Special mention must go to the featured dance ensemble (yes, the yellow brick road seems to adorably come to life): Emma Rose Alvarez, Richard Ocampo (also effective as the Gatekeeper), Xamara Pastrama, and Audrey Richter. Other talented dancers in the show include Asya Basden, Aisheeda Benjamin, Paris Boykin, Nasir Fanning (who also plays the Messenger), Taylor Headershot, Alicia Herrera, Blair McClausland, DaShawn McClinton (who's also Lord High Undelring), Mercedes Mendoza, Gabriella Roberts, Kayla Roberts, Kalena Slaton and Shannon Suder.
The Children's Ensemble features Andrea Doe, Chelsie Good, Janiah Green, McKensie London, Adom Neizer-Ashun, Tobias Paine, Xoe Paine and Morgan Sheriff. All of the children in the show have now experienced the magic of the performing arts, and they have done so admirably.
Other ensemble members include Tara Duffy, Joia Holbrook, Monica Paine, Fralia Colon, Ryan Farnworth, Cameron Giles, Tyrone Johnson, Jodie Kaplan, Jenni Karabensh, Jeremy Lomack, Jermaine Magwood, Chelsea Orvis, and Kym Welch.
The show is not perfect, far from it. There are some minor sound issues, the background singing is sometimes difficult to hear, and the space is not always friendly to such a mammoth undertaking. The sets are workmanlike, but nothing awe-inspiring or worthy of the Oz magic. The lighting gets the job done, nothing more. But what this WIZ lacks in some aspects is made up by an abundance of energy and heart. This is one fast-moving production, and everyone involved should be proud.
Director David J. Valdez has done a remarkable job of guiding this behemoth, both with the spot-on casting and with his overall vision. You feel that his love of theatre, and his understanding of THE WIZ and the real meaning of home, has transferred onto his large cast. Choreographers Audrey Richter and Alexa Roberts get the most out of their young dancers. And Shelley Giles' and Heather Cleveland's costumes and makeup are appropriately creative.
Music director G. Frank Meekins performs his usual magic with the orchestra. Featured musicians are Alexandria Harrington, AnnMarie Abraham, Jillian Emerson, Megan Baker, Julia Ford, Brooke Dansberger, Jim Furdell, Peter Harrison, Steven Vought, Brian Mason, Evan Randolph, Nathan Mitchell, and Emmanuel "E.J." Mitchell.
This is director Valdez's first show since returning to the Bay Area last year. He has guided a community theatre production with an abundance of energy, zest, talent, and especially heart. Watching his cast bring to life this soulful love letter to all dreamers, and at the same time seeing so many young boys and girls having their lives changed by being a part of it, will melt even the hardest of Evilliene hearts. It's a powerful sight to behold, this changing of lives. Not even the most Strindberg-loving snob can resist it.
Photo Credit: Picture This of Palma Ceia