A FIZZLIN’ WIZ @ Dallas Theater Center

Guest review by Robert Neblett

I love The Wiz. It is one of my all-time favorite musicals. I think that its finale number “Home” is one of the top five best Broadway numbers ever written. When I heard that this show would conclude Dallas Theater Center’s 2010-2011 season, I felt more excited than I have been in a long time about a regional DFW production.

Sadly, while the production currently on stage at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre has some bright moments, for a musical whose best-known number is “Ease on Down the Road,” there is very little in DTC’s The Wiz that doesn’t seem forced, belabored, and unfocused.

It disappoints, not because of a lack of talent, but due to a lack of cohesive directorial vision and a seeming lack of trust in both the material and in the audience’s ability to experience the show on its own terms. Despite the fact that many of the individual components exceed expectations on their own, the total production never quite gels fully.

An African-American musical retelling/retooling of Baum’s classic The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz (book by William F. Brown, music/lyrics by Charlie Smalls, with additional music by Luther Vandross) opened on Broadway in early 1975 to critical raves thanks to its young star, Stephanie Mills and its electric score that incorporated soul, gospel, and rock styling. More importantly, it succeeded because its new vision for a classic story provided relevant social commentary within the context of a population whose dreams of traveling over the rainbow were deferred for several hundred years by prejudice and injustice. In 1978 Sidney Lumet directed a much-derided film adaptation starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. Despite certain casting missteps and perceived blaxploitation, Lumet’s film endowed the musical with a gritty urban sensibility and portrayed Oz as a fantasy version of New York City (with Emerald City sequences performed at the plaza between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers).

Trimmed to run 90 minutes without intermission, DTC’s production of The Wiz, helmed by artistic director Kevin Moriarty, flails desperately in attempting to achieve any unified production concept, with various components at odds with each other. An unfortunate choice of audience configuration overshadows almost every production element in an intrusive, distracting manner: 12 mini-van sized mobile seating platforms dubbed “pods” by DTC. In the tornado sequence (which must have served as the initial “pod” inspiration for director Moriarty), dancers spin like dervishes as all-too-visible tech crewmembers strain to maneuver the multiple, cumbersome seating platforms into their next position. In stark contrast, Dorothy (Trisha Jeffrey) is stranded on the porch of her ramshackle Kansas farmhouse, which remains painfully static amidst the meteorologically motivated audience platform whirling and juggling. Pods, you ask?
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To be fair, Brown’s book of The Wizhas always needed a rewrite in order to smooth over some of its intrinsic clumsiness. However, in an apparent attempt to conclude within the 90 minute running time, DTC’s artistic team creates a lumbering, inelegant patchwork monster out of this already problematic script.

Sydney James Harcourt, Trisha Jeffrey, David Ryan Smith, James T. Lane

It eliminates close to 25% of the text (including the excision of at least three full songs) and fosters awkward, abrupt transitions in and out of songs and dance numbers. In DTC’s dramaturgical transformation (notably without the assistance of a professional dramaturg), no attempts are made to smooth over the text’s rough edges, thereby releasing it from its somewhat dated 1975 context. Director Moriarty’s adamant need to squeeze the show into its arbitrary advertised length, results in the production’s most glaring offense: it feels unnecessarily rushed, serving to alienate the audience rather than drawing it in.

For all of his attempts to integrate interactive participation into The Wiz, the director discourages and deters the audience from participating in the most natural, organic, familiar ways – by attempting to connect emotionally with the characters onstage or through simple responses like applause. At the end of the buoyant “Everybody Rejoice!” (a soaring, jubilant number by Luther Vandross that follows Dorothy’s “flushing” of the melted wicked witch), Dorothy is held aloft by Winkies (Evillene’s liberated servants) as she sings a glorious wordless refrain; barely does the final beat of the song arrive when the lights abruptly shift to the next scene. On opening night, the audience tried to clap but got promptly shushed by the steamroller trajectory of the staging. Dorothy isn’t even allowed to have one final private moment onstage singing the finale “Home”, simply and strongly. Moriarty queues up the entire cast behind her upstage, where they join her in a confusing, premature chorus line/curtain call that muddies the musical’s denouement before she can sing the musical’s final note.

DTC’s press release states that this production is internationally respected choreographer Christopher Lance Huggins’ first foray into musical theatre, and it shows. Painfully. While the members of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre perform his acrobatic, energetic movements with graceful aplomb in their own right, the choreography is more often than not uncomfortably disconnected from The Wiz’s dramatic action and storytelling. It rarely helps clarify onstage events. You can’t help but call foul when Dorothy describes the action of the battle with the monstrous Kalidahs, yet none of the battle choreography we’ve just seen matches the narrative she recounts. At times the dancers portraying the Yellow Brick Road seem to do their damnedest to “ease their way” into obstructing Dorothy’s journey to the Emerald City rather than guiding her along the path. One wonders why the more-than-capable choreographer/director and DTC artistic associate Joel Ferrell did not help Huggins bridge the significant gap between dance theatre and theatrical dance.

With the exception of some deadly, awkward line readings by dance company members in smaller parts, this cast shines in every performance, relishing the opportunity to portray such iconic roles. James T. Lane (late of Broadway’s The Scottsboro Boys) as the Scarecrow delivers this show’s standout performance. His instant charisma and self-deprecating humor permit him to dance effortlessly through the show (literally and figuratively), and he creates one of the show’s only truly three-dimensional characterizations. The strongest moment in the production occurs during his gospel-tinged number “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday.” As he intones this bluesy tune about seeking a better future for himself, Dorothy slowly emulates his dance steps until she joins him and a wild chorus of funky crows in a series of smooth moves that would give the Electric Slide a run for its money. The Scarecrow teaches her to dance as if it is the native language of Oz, a rare moment of illumination that clarifies and strengthens the two characters’ bond.

Clever doubling reveals the lovely Denise Lee as Aunt Em/Glinda, powerhouse Liz Mikel as the alternately dotty and devilish witches Addaperle and Evillene, and Hassan El-Amin as Uncle Henry/The Wiz. Lee brings a poignant tenderness to each of her roles. While I would have liked to have seen more pain and regret behind Aunt Em’s “The Feeling We Once Had,” the silky clarity of Lee’s voice allows her to transform effortlessly into Glinda and convince Dorothy to “Believe in Yourself.” El-Amin’s enchanting Wiz is part James Brown, part Al Sharpton, part Morris Day. His rendition of “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard” is all gleeful pompous strut. More than any other member of the company, Liz Mikel seemed to understand the tone and intent of the script and fully embrace its theatricality.

Liz Mikel

Her Addaperle and Evillene may leave the stage picking bits of scenery out of their teeth, but I would have gladly served them up another helping just to keep them onstage longer. Trisha Jeffrey performs Dorothy with an engaging blend of confidence and childlike innocence. Still, I can’t help but wonder why Moriarty did not taken full advantage of DTC’s ongoing educational collaboration with Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and sought out a more age-appropriate local actor to shine in this role.

For audience members whose most recent theatrical memories of Oz revolve around the lush scenery of the Broadway and/or touring productions of Wicked, there is an expectation of grandiose magic in the stage setting of a major regional theatre mounting that DTC’s production of The Wiz fails to deliver. Instead, Emmy-nominated scenic designer Jo Winiarski’s work here comes across like one of the chintzy dime-store parlor tricks from good witch Addaperle’s ratty carpetbag. Director Kevin Moriarty does Winiarski no favors by saddling her design with his moving audience pod albatross, severely limiting her ability to populate the primary-color-infused playing area with dynamic, three-dimensional set pieces of any substance. After earlier successful employment of lush scenic environments in the Wyly as those featured in this season’s Cabaret and Henry IV, the dramatic impact of Winiarski’s set falls as flat as the two-dimensional, gold glitter-decorated landscape that hovers gaudily above the action for the first third of Dorothy’s funky adventure in Oz. It looks borrowed from a second-rate community theatre warehouse. What is intended to come across as minimal and spare instead seems empty, inconsequential and amateurish. The space begins to approach its full potential only when we are transported to Evillene’s throne room. Sadly, even then Liz Mikel (delivering a stellar turn as the wicked witch) gets trapped atop a menacing throne of bones on her own mobile pod during the rousing “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” unable to engage in anything that resembles choreography or blocking. Ultimately, she’s reduced to another piece of furniture on wheels that needs to be carted offstage when the scene ends.

Wade Laboisonniere enlivens DTC’s Land of Oz with lavish, colorful costumes that rarely miss a beat, from the elaborately quilted petticoats of the Munchkins and Addaperle to Evillene’s deliciously dark brocaded nightmare dress, to the seductive tulle of the rainbow afro’ed Poppy Girls. While the dapper ochre zoot-suited members of the Yellow Brick Road dancing quartet could use a little more zoot to heighten their stylized shoulder silhouettes and coat-tails, the homage to Cab Calloway is a fabulous hat tip to African-American cultural idiom. I’m still not quite sure I understand the motivation behind attiring the Lion in an Elizabethan doublet and slops, but the initial confusion of this choice disappears as soon as actor David Ryan Smith commits fully to his character’s sissified dandyism.

California lighting designer Jaymi Lee Smith, apparently a last-minute replacement for accomplished Fort Worth designer Chad R. Jung, is perhaps burdened with the technical staff’s greatest challenge – creating a sense of place and mood in Winiarski’s meager yet cavernous mise en scène, coupled with the specific demands of lighting for dance theatre collaboration.  While her design is functional enough, it never creates the whimsy or magic that The Wiz requires. There are moments (like in the Kalidah battle) where it appears she has decided obscuring the action onstage in near darkness features it best.

I would have eagerly traded all of the bells and whistles and seating pods and forced audience interaction of the Dallas Theater Center’s production of The Wiz for a solid, well-conceived, unified production in a proscenium configuration that accentuated the top-notch singers, actors, and dancers in the Wyly venue’s cast. Instead, DTC focuses on gimmickry that never delivers on its promise of transporting the audience into the magic of Oz. Like the Wiz himself, this production is “a fake, a phony, and a fraud (and how!)” that left me, like Dorothy, eager to get home. Anybody got a spare pair of silver slippers?

The Wiz plays through August 7 at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora Street, Dallas, TX.

For tickets, call 214.880.0202 or visit

http://www.dallastheatercenter.org/index.php.

David Leggett photos picked up from D Magazine’s FrontRow

Guest reviewer Robert Neblett is a local dramaturg, director, and actor with a PhD in Comparative and Dramatic Literature from Washington University in St. Louis.

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4 thoughts on “A FIZZLIN’ WIZ @ Dallas Theater Center

  1. Great review, and I’m sad to say that I agree with it totally. I have been a season ticket holder at the Dallas Theater Center for many years, and I was thrilled when I saw the Wiz was on the lineup for this season. I saw the touring production of The Wiz in St. Louis in February of 1984 when a young understudy took over for an ill Stephanie Mills as Dorothy. I was only 22 but I loved it! So more than 27 years later, I just couldn’t wait to see what the creative team at the DTC lead by Kevin Moriarty would do with this show. But boy did it fall flat! The moving pods probably looked great on paper,and it was an interesting experiment, but they added absolutely nothing to the show! And I couldn’t believe that we were being moved around during the climatic song “home” during the finale which is the most emotional part of the show. This was not The Wiz I loved as a youth and not the show with the over the top great production values that I’m used to seeing at the Dallas Theater Center. I thought the show would be filled with color and life, but instead it was filled with a bare stage with minimal scenery, a relatively small cast for a big musical, and left me sad and disappointed as I left the theater!

  2. It’s a shame to hear this, but friends of mine who’ve been to see The Wiz have said similar things to you both. I haven’t had a chance to go see it as I live in the UK nowadays, but I probably won’t bother now anyway!

    Another variation on the Wizard of Oz theme that I can recommend however (and I imagine you’ve heard it too as it’s made big bucks since it landed here in London) is Wicked the Musical. It’s a different take – looking at the story from the Wicked Witch’s perspective. The cast are querky, the songs really well done, and the costumes superbly desgined. Overall, I thought it was brilliant, and hopefully it’ll reach you guys over there!

  3. While I agree with much of this, you totally discredit yourself by suggesting that a 14-17 year old girl from Booker T would be capable of playing Dorothy. There are few professional musical theater singers who can sing that score, and even fewer who can maintain it night after night. Stephanie Mills was a glorious freak of nature, but she was truly one of a kind.

    It’s also worth mentioning that the Wiz has always received mixed reviews–even the initial Broadway production. Word of mouth was what brought success to thw Wiz…and only after they turned No Bad News and Ease on Down the Road into radio singles and brought the public in. Every attempted revival since it opened on Broadway (meaning large-scale regional productions) has been a failure critically and commercially. While DTC’s production is obviously not without its flaws, it is sold out nightly–which is something of a feat–and (judging by the night I attended) seems to be bringing in a more varied demmographic.

    Otherwise, enjoyed the review!

    • Your thoughts are welcome and comments well reasoned and expressed. Why author them as “anonymous”? One thing we do as critics is sign our names to what we write; I am disappointed when anyone responding with a differing point of view fails to do the same. It seems a coward’s way out? I trust my substitute critic’s eye and comprehensive understanding of theatre, why I have asked him to fill in for me while I’m laid up. I might not have written the same review he did; but then, after all, it’s just one opinion. I’m glad to hear the show is selling out and fully support DTC in this region. Cabaret was well-attended also. Please see my review of it, if you have not. It currently ranks as one of the two best shows I’ve seen so far this year. I will pass on your comments to my reviewer, who may respond, too. Thanks again for weighing in. Alexandra Bonifield

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