The Wiz

It’s hard to explain America’s fascination with The Wizard of Oz other than to say it’s an enduring one.  L. Frank Baum’s classic book The Wonderful World of Oz inspired a Hollywood movie and numerous stage adaptations, including some that put a unique spin on the material.

Most famous nowadays is Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked.  A prequel of sorts to The Wizard of Oz, it has delighted kids and adults across the world with its pop score, strong female characters, and eye-popping production values.  Before Wicked became synonymous with popular Broadway musicals, however, there was another musical that offered a unique take on the characters we all know so well.

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Kelli Blackwell as Evilene (Photo: Kirstine Christiansen)

The Wiz burst onto the Broadway scene in 1975 and won more than its share of Tony Awards, including ‘Best Musical’.  Featuring music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls and a book by William F. Brown, it certainly wasn’t The Wizard of Oz we all knew.  Sure, there was still a tornado, the wide-eyed Dorothy, a cute little dog, a good witch, a bad witch, a scarecrow, a tinman, and a lion, and, of course, an omnipotent wizard.  There was also a jiving, soul-stirring, disco-influenced score that was very much of its time.  Featuring an all-black cast, it was one of those influential shows that changed the very definition of what could be considered a mainstream Broadway musical.  A 1978 Hollywood movie, featuring none other than Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, further cemented its place in American culture, a place that has endured for several decades.

While it’s hardly interesting that a local theatre has chosen to include The Wiz in its 2012-2013 season – it’s a mainstay in high schools, community theatres, and the like given its accessibility and enduring popularity –  it’s particularly fitting that one in Baltimore would choose to do it.  Before moving to Broadway, Baltimore’s now defunct Mechanic Theatre played host to the musical.  While The Wiz’s yellow brick road to Broadway was far from smooth, it was in Baltimore that all of the pieces started to fall into place.

A current production at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore stays true to the material that was first presented in this fair city, but also puts a unique spin on it and plays homage to the film of the same name.  While the production itself is uneven, one has to admire the efforts of the engaging cast that gives its all to entertain the audience under the careful eyes of Director Kevin McAllister and Music Director Cedric D. Lyles.  Presented at a frenetic pace, it’s nothing if not energetic and joyful.

Bryan Jeffrey Daniels as Scarecrow, Tobias Young as Lion, Ashley Johnson as Dorothy, and Marquise White as Tinman (Photo: Kirstine Christiansen)

Bryan Jeffrey Daniels as Scarecrow, Tobias Young as Lion, Ashley Johnson as Dorothy, and Marquise White as Tinman (Photo: Kirstine Christiansen)

The cast features some stellar vocalists.  Most successful at combining powerful singing with acting is Ashley Johnson as Dorothy.  Wide-eyed and innocent, she’s the perfect ingénue.  Though at times her wide-eyed wonderment of experiencing the fantasy world that is Oz can become a bit excessive and cartoonish, she’s delightfully charming.  While many before her have chosen to screech through every song (including Jennifer Hudson on a recent episode of Smash) and select riffs and vocal runs over any form of lyrical interpretation, Johnson does well to sell the songs vocally while still remaining true to her character.  “Soon As I Get Home” and the iconic “Home” are two of her many highlights.  I particularly appreciated her choice to not slay “Home” from the first note, but to slowly build to a climax.

If there was one moment in the show where I said “wow, this one deserves an amazing career in musical theatre” it was when Crystal Freeman appeared on stage as Glinda.  Unlike in the movie, Glinda does not appear in The Wiz until shortly before Dorothy returns to Kansas.  Freeman makes every moment of her brief time on stage count – and I do mean count.  A charismatic and beautiful singer, she brings a new dimension to the reprise of “Believe in Yourself.”  I’ve never been a fan of this song or Glinda’s other big number, “A Rested Body is a Rested Mind,” but Freeman sells them like none other from the moment she opens her mouth.  Her textured vocals, heartfelt emotions, and commanding stage presence are worthy of a much larger stage.

Recommended
The Wiz
Closes April 28, 2013
Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore
Best Western Hotel and Conference Center
5625 Odonnell Street
Baltimore, MD. 21224
2 hours, 20 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $51 – $57 includes dinner
Here’s what’s for dinner
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and tickets or call 1-866-99TOBYS
Other principals don’t fare as well with singing powerfully while still conveying the story.  At the performance I witnessed, numerous actors struggled with diction, including Kelli Blackwell as Evilene, Bryan Daniels as Scarecrow, and Jonathan Randle as the Wiz. Although it was often difficult to understand all of what Blackwell and Daniels were singing or saying, I do have to say that I enjoyed their performances. I applaud Blackwell for being deliciously evil as Evilene, rocking her modern funk costume (Lawrence B. Munsey) like none other, and – if I judge by her take on “No Bad News” –  having one of the most powerful voices in the cast.  Daniels also was delightfully charming and humorous as the man without a brain.  Randle, on the other hand, sacrificed pitch and lyric interpretation for vocal acrobatics in his rendition of “Believe in Yourself” and failed to sell himself as a man craving power, which was rather unfortunate.

The ensemble numbers, particularly those that showcase Shalyce Hemby’s jubilant and athletic choreography, are among the standout elements of this production.  From the “Tornado Ballet” and the “Emerald City Ballet” to the Luther Vandross-penned “Everybody Rejoice,” this production makes clear why there are more reasons to like this musical than the familiar story.  The music and dancing make it more exciting.

At Toby’s, a strong 6-piece band sounds more like a 12-piece band and certainly enhances the already extraordinarily accessible music selections.  The brass section plays with such vigorous yet purposeful energy that it’s impossible not to be in awe of the musicianship on display.  Together with those in the rhythm section, they certainly rock it out in a good way.

While the performance I witnessed was plagued by several sound problems and several not so seamless set changes, I do have to applaud Toby’s for putting on an enjoyable musical.  While the production values – and in particular David A. Hopkins set – are certainly not at the level of some of the larger budget theatres around town, Toby’s demonstrates that those things can be overlooked if a cast is overflowing with talent and commitment.   This one certainly is.

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The Wiz . Based on “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum . Book by William F. Brown . Music & Lyrics by Charlie Smalls . directed by Kevin McAllister . Music direction by Cedric D. Lyles . Choreography by Shalyce Hemby . Featuring Ashley Johnson as Dorothy, Bryan Daniels as The Scarecrow, Tobias Young as The Lion, and Marquise White as The Tinman. Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore . Reviewed by Jennifer Perry.

 

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Other reviews

Mark Beachy . MDTheatreGuide
Jack L. B. Gohn . BroadwayWorld
Amanda Gunther . DCMetroTheaterArts

  

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