Put on your platform shoes and pimp suit and ease on down the road—in this case, I-95—to Baltimore, where Center Stage has created a sturdily upbeat revival of the musical The Wiz that pays tribute to 70s kitsch without being slavish to the boogie.
Your memories of The Wiz may begin and end with the over-long movie starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, who eased on down the road so many times you were ready to shove that yellow brick road somewhere the sun doesn’t shine.
The stage musical, featuring a bright disco R&B score by Charlie Smalls and a genial, inspirational book by William F. Brown—the overlying message is to believe in yourself—that tells L. Frank Baum’s classic tale from an African American view with flair. It’s actually a blast to hear the actors dropping such 70s slang as “jive turkey,” “hey, little mama” and “a real downer” with ease, almost as much fun as hearing the Shaft-esque overture that sets the tone for the show.
Orchestrator Eric Svejcar cheerfully embraces the cheese factor of much of the Me Decade’s pop music, and the score is a boom-chocka-locka-locka pastiche of thumping bass, fake drums and synthesized keyboards. The ballads tend of be of the syrupy, crescendo-laden variety and you can just picture Donna Summer giving her all to “Believe in Yourself” or “Soon as I Get Home.”
As enjoyable as it can be to revisit the more positive aspects of the 70s, this production of The Wiz has its problems. The beginning sequence, where we meet a tomboyish Dorothy (Kristen N. Dowtin, lovely and touchingly vulnerable, and featuring a crystalline voice) and her stern, but loving Aunt Em (Angela Robinson), is so rushed that you don’t understand Dorothy’s attachment to home before it all gets blown away in a dreadful Tornado Ballet that features amateurish choreography by Willie Rosario and some unfortunate wispy costumes by Candice Donnelly.
Once we’re past the storm, things perk up. Dorothy’s travels somewhere over the rainbow have her first encountering Addaperle (Gwen Stewart), a bohemian auntie style of witch, brought to bodacious life by Miss Stewart, who also plays her nefarious sister Evillene with majestic malice, her facial expressions and make-up suggesting Divine crossed with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Dorothy then meets Scarecrow (Eric B. Anthony), a straw-brained hayseed in search of some intellect. Mr. Anthony possesses enviable athleticism and an abundance of ebullience, however, he could go a bit easier on the hick accent. Next up, they find Tin Man (Mel Johnson, Jr.) in a dumpster and after a few squirts of Pam spray, he tells of his quest to find a heart. Mr. Johnson is greatly affecting in the role, subdued and thoughtful, adding skilled inflection to his big number, “To Be Able to Feel.”
Perhaps no one owns a role like Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, but Wayne W. Pretlow gives the venerable actor a run for his money. Mr. Pretlow’s sweet, soaring vocals and growly, pussycat attitude—love the tuft of leonine chest hair sprouting out of his jumpsuit and his Cats-style dreadlocks—lift the show to a whole new level.
The show benefits from this much-needed bounce, since director Irene Lewis’ concept for the show is stripped down, featuring the now ho-hum element of an unadorned brick wall, catwalks overhead that don’t add any value to the production and an overall look that can only be described as “urban skuzzy.” Some of the touches are amusing—the Wizard (Kingsley Leggs, dynamic as the preacherly head of Oz) ascends to the stage in a phone booth (do youngsters in the audience even know what a pay phone is?) and Addaperle makes her entrance in a FedEx box—but a lot of time the production is so minimalist that it is often four actors looking awfully lonesome on a big, bare stage and you start to wonder where the money for the show was spent.
They certainly didn’t break the bank on the portrayal of Dorothy’s beloved farm in Kansas—while Miss Dowlin belts out the climactic “Home”, a little house that evokes unfortunate comparisons to the shrunken Stonehenge from This Is Spinal Tap wobbles forlornly in the breeze.
However, many of the costumes are fantastic, especially a 70s-inspired fashion promenade in the second act that captures the halter dresses and mod rags of the era with chic hauteur. Evillene’s drag-queeny gown has to be seen to be believed and the tiny little witch hat—almost a dunce cap—is a witty touch. Equally jaw-dropping is Glinda’s (Miss Robinson, sultry and diva-like) entrance in the second act, ablaze in white chiffon and sequins and brought in Cleopatra-style on a bier held aloft by hunky men.
These and other flourishes, as well as a talented cast who often outshine the material, create a Wiz that is at once faithful to the Me Decade and glamorizes it.
Book by William F. Brown
Music and Lyrics by Charlie Smalls
Based on the story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Directed by Irene Lewis
Eric Svejcar, Musical Director/Orchestrator
Produced by Center Stage
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
At Center Stage 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD
By Jayne Blanchard