BWW Review: THE WIZ at Ford's Theatre
As if there weren't enough scary things in the world right now, I've come to realize that I have been going to live theatrical productions for over 43 years. That means I have been sitting in the dark for a long time (no jokes please).
The Tony Award-winning musical soul adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz, was either my second or third show. It was early 1975 and I was sitting in a prime orchestra seat with my dad in the Majestic Theatre (yes, before Phantom). Believe it or not, there was a time when Broadway shows were affordable, like under twenty dollars for orchestra seats. I remember Stephanie Mills, Tiger Haynes, Hinton Battle, Ted Ross, Mabel King and Andre de Shields' performances vividly, as well as Charlie Smalls' score. "Ease on Down the Road" was a breakout hit and actually helped sell the show before it hit New York. The book was written by William F. Brown.
It had a rough tryout period to be sure. Between Detroit, Baltimore and New York, Director Gilbert Moses was replaced by the show's Costume Designer Geoffrey Holder and Stu Gilliam as the Scarecrow was replaced by a newcomer named Hinton Battle. The show made him a star. No one thought the show had a chance, but it went on to win seven Tony Awards, including best musical.
I have seen several productions of The Wiz since 1975 and, for one reason or another, none have compared to the original staging. In 1993, when the show played the Beacon Theatre, Stephanie Mills was flat out too old to play Dorothy by then and the show didn't belong in that cavernous concert venue. A production at Encores! suffered from some miscasting. There was one more version, but I'll get to that a bit later.
Ford's Theatre's current production has a bunch of pluses and unfortunately some glaring minuses as they push their technical capabilities to the max. This one might be their most complex tech show to date.
First, I'm going to focus on the pluses. The show is wonderfully sung throughout. You have Ines Nassara as Dorothy skillfully, and with a full heart, hitting all the right things with "Soon as I Get Home" and the show's closing number, "Home."
You have Kevin McAllister as the Tinman showing us that not only can he sing, act, and make my wife smile just by opening his mouth, but he can tap dance as well. This is evident in his specialty feature called "Slide Some Oil to Me." Now might be a good time to note that the only other production of The Wiz I have seen was directed by McAllister at Toby's Dinner Theatre. With a smaller budget than Ford's Theatre has, he did a wonderful job.
You have Hasani Allen as the limber and rubber-bodied Scarecrow. His performance rivaled Hinton Battle's original performance in acting and in singing. He is a true star.
There is also Awa Sal Secka as Glinda. She comes on towards the end of the show and hits a home run with a strong vocal on "Believe in Yourself."
Kara Harmon's costumes are stellar and pay homage to Geoffrey Holder's original designs in a few instances - the big afro Yellow Brick Road dancers being a prime example.
Charlie Smalls' score makes you wonder what this genius would have come up with had he not died so young. The fact that is has a distinct 70's funk soul theme doesn't mean it doesn't transcend time. The rousing ensemble liberation number "Everybody Rejoice" was penned by pop superstar Luther Vandross.
Now, with regard to the music, Darius Smith leads a red hot funkadelic eight-piece ensemble and his orchestra reduction lovingly pays homage to Harold Wheeler's original 20-piece orchestration, keeping much of Timothy Graphenreed's original dance music intact.
The band is so good they deserve to be mentioned by name. We have Darius Smith (Conductor/Keyboard 1), Victor Simonson (Keyboard 2), Ben Bokor on reeds (Sax, Clarinet and Flute), Kieron Irvine (Trumpet/Fluglehorn), Greg Boyer (Trombone) Yuesf Chisholm (Electric Bass/Tuba), Gerry Kunkel (Guitar/Banjo), and Danny Villanueva (Drums/Percussion).
Dell Howlett's choreography for the "Tornado" and "Funky Monkeys" are definite showstoppers.
Ok, I've said a bunch of nice things, now it's time to voice my opinion of what I think went wrong. Much of the blame goes to director Kent Gash for making some bizarre directorial choices.
First off, making the character of Evilene (Monica Midgette) head of a bright and cheery candy factory instead of a dark sweatshop doesn't make her particularly, well, evil. I understand maybe Gash wanted to key in on the contrast, but it did not work for me.
Christopher Michael Richardson's Lion lacks the necessary bravado from the moment he appears. His entrance song "I'm a Mean Ole Lion" suffers big time because of this.
On the duet "Be a Lion," Nassara never even gets close to Richardson for encouragement. Without this moment, you do not see Dorothy's warmth or compassion, which perhaps goes against the writers' intention.
Perhaps the biggest directorial problem is the way Gash chooses to handle Nassara as Dorothy. With a Cheshire Cat grin on her face for most of the show, you don't see how urgent it is for Dorothy to get home. I love Nassara as a singer, but I wonder with a stronger director if her acting would have matched her vocal prowess.
Back in 1975 you didn't have the "benefit" of some of the technology you have now. Projection didn't exist which meant scenery was a big design element. Maybe for the worse, projection is now a mainstay in many productions. Here, Jason Sherwood's scenic design is upstaged by Clint Allen's projections. It's not that they don't look good. But they don't really work in this venue. Aside from the big screen onstage, it's very hard to project to the left and right of the stage because of this thing called the presidential box where Lincoln was shot. In other words, there isn't enough solid surface to project onto.
Lastly, I feel sorry for Jobari Parker-Namdar as The Wiz. He sings and acts the part very well, but his Prince-like (the singer, of course) costume is very unfortunate.
The Wiz at Ford's Theatre will probably be enjoyed most by folks that have not seen it before. It did not knock out my memories of the original production despite some strong performances and some of the production elements.
Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes with one intermission.
The Wiz runs through May 12, 2018 at Ford's Theatre, located at 511 10th St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, click here.