Tichina Arnold, working it to utter filth, as Evilene
Those are the two best words to describe Encores! revival of THE WIZ, with Thomas Kail’s zippy, febrile direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s spirited, street-flavored choreography propelling the show for a new generation of theatergoers. Factor in Paul Tazewell’s clever, often jaw-droppingly visual costumes and David Korins’ innovative, spare sets (with the best band stage I’ve seen since the one Tony Walton designed for the original production of CHICAGO) and you already have a recipe for success without even a mention of the cast.
One dissatisfied reviewer snarkily observed that you leave this show “humming the sets,” which is pure bullcrap, as Charlie Smalls’ songs have always impressed me as wondrously melodic and varied in their influences of jazz, funk, and pure Broadway. Musical director Alex Lacamoire was alert to their every nuance and his sensitive conducting, worlds aware from your basic Broadway pit blaring, was one of the loveliest jobs I have ever heard in musical theater. Ashanti, as Dorothy, may be no Judy Garland, histrionically, but she has a fluently powerful set of pipes to match, as well as a fetchingly demure stage presence (almost reminiscent of the young Ruby Keeler in her eagerness to please and jump right into the fun). She’s convincingly your basic not-quite-present adolescent in the initial scenes, and, surrounded by as many more experienced, true stage animals as she is here, she will doubtlessly get more at ease and into character as the run continues, gaining invaluable performing experience.
Emerald City arrivals
Aside from Orlando Jones rather uninspired Wiz, there are no quibbles with the rest of the cast. Joshua Henry brought a sexy, James Brown edge to Tinman (usually the most thankless of Dorothy’s famous, antic trio of Oz companions), while James Monroe Iglehart had the perfect combination of swaggering bravado and affecting pathos as Lion. But it was Christian Dante White who singlehandedly possessed more charm than anyone else, providing his ever-floppy Scarecrow with an enchanting cluelessness as well as some killer dance moves. (If Dorothy had said anything akin to the movie line, “I think I’ll miss you most of all,” which always struck me as needlessly insensitive to poor Lion and Tinman, here, you would have totally believed her.)
Dawnn Lewis, sporting Tazewell’s splashy melange of Kinte cloth, was delightfully airheaded as Addaperle, that most hapless of witches. (Where has this talented gal been since A DIFFERENT WORLD?) Tichina Arnold had a campy field day – very wisely, I thought – channeling Bette Davis, with her bug eyes and enunciatory attitude, as Evilene. Kail staged her big number, “No Bad News” as a dressing up number to make RuPaul drool, and Arnold, first seen amusingly in her wig cap, worked it six ways from Sunday in her Mugler-esque drag. (Although I hope, by now, the production has given her at least a real puff of smoke to finally disappear into at her demise.) LaChanze was properly deglamourized as Auntie Em, but reappeared as Glinda, with sparkling charisma to rival Diana Ross – whom she so resembles, wafting her arms sensuously in Nerfertiti turban and clouds of sky blue chiffon.
LaChanze, Ashanti, Dawnn Lewis and Tichina Arnold: the fierce ass Women of THE WIZ
I happily note the gratifying presence of four such strong female presences – such a vital part of this show – as well as its devastating, unprecented one-two punch of double eleven o’clock numbers. Glinda’s “If You Believe” and then Dorothy’s “Home” were delivered with such ferocious intensity by Mesdames La Chanze and Ashanti that the roof of City Center probably rose by an extra few feet, at least. The crowd – deliciously dotted with black children gotten up in their Emerald City finest by doting, equally fabulously turned out parents – went wild, as they say.
LaChanze and Ashanti
Oh, and Toto (played by Cairn terrier Nigel, in his stage debut) was freakin’ adorable.
I admit this was the first time I have actually seen the show, being more familiar with Sidney Lumet’s much maligned 1978 film version, set in a Recession-beset Manhattan, with the then sparkly new Word Trade Center standing in for the Emerald City. LaChanze told me she shares my affection for this fascinating mess of a film, which veered from the scarily dark and intense (with Lumet giving his urban all to the Poppy scene hookers, flying monkeys like leathery Hell’s Angels on Harleys, and an utterly repulsive Evilene ruling a sweat shop) to the tinselly sappy (Lena Horne singing Glinda’s song encased like a blue Christmas tree, surrounded by sickmakingly “adorable” babies) It was a megaflop which forever scuttled Diana Ross’ movie career – the hubris of her, at 34, lusting to play this most iconic of roles, which she did in a mesmerizingly wrong jittery, strung-out way – Dorothy in rehab – replete with bizarre, intense vocal inflections. The total feyness of the now sadly deceased Michael Jackson was here once and for all exposed with his peppily danced Scarecrow, who definitely seemed to be missing a pair, forget about a brain. And then there was the “surefire” casting of Richard Pryor as The Wiz, a total misfire, as he way overdid the quaking pathos.
“I could STILL play Dorothy!”