Christopher Michael Richardson is “easing on down the road,” nightly as the Lion in Ford Theatre’s imaginative production of the Tony-winning, The Wiz, which runs through May 12.
“The Lion as a role is so interesting to me because he is larger than life, but at the same time, he doesn’t really realize how much he has inside of him,” Richardson says. “The Lion we are doing is much more a commentary on being true to yourself and being who you are. He’s very flamboyant, he’s out of the box, he’s crazy, but he can be deadly serious one second and the next, be a puddle on the floor.”
What Richardson likes best about the character is he believes audience members will see a lot of themselves in the Lion and his actions, but still see the same silliness they might be expecting based on past productions.
Directed by Kent Gash (Wig Out! Studio Theatre, Barbecue, Off-Broadway), the show is a retelling of L. Frank Baum’s classic 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in the context of modern African-American culture. Based on the same source material as the Judy Garland-led Wizard of Oz movie, The Wiz, debuted on Broadway in 1975, and was turned into a movie musical with Diana Ross in the lead.
“When I heard that Kent was attached to the project, I knew I wanted to be a part of this because I really love his work as a director; I feel he brings out my best,” Richardson says. “I knew he could help me be on this journey in a great way.”
Richardson’s earliest memory of the show comes from seeing his older cousin in a high school production playing Aunt Em. “I always looked up to her because she was such a strong singer in church and school,” he says. “From there, I watched the Diana Ross movie, which was just iconic. It flooded my head with so many incredible visuals.”
Once he was cast, Richardson went back and watched the film again for the first time in decades and found just as much inspiration that time around as he did when he was a youngster.
“There was so much more going on in the movie that I didn’t even know or remember or realize,” he says. “On Day One, I came into rehearsal and realized we were doing something a little bit different, so I had to put some of that away and focus on the amazing people in the room and what we were trying to say.”
The production also features Ines Nassara as Dorothy, Hasani Allen as Scarecrow, Kevin McAllister as Tinman and Jobari Parker-Namdar as The Wiz.
“We’re having so much fun as a cast; it’s insane,” Richardson says. “Even when you feel it’s at its darkest or you are at your most worn down, everyone is there for one another and we lift ourselves up. It’s over the top fun at all times.”
Produced by Ford’s Theatre
closes May 12, 2018
Details and tickets
Once The Wiz ends in May, Richardson will celebrate his birthday with a short two-week vacation and then head right back to the stage, playing Charlie Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown at Imagination Stage.
Growing up in Richmond, Va., Richardson knew he wanted a career in theater early on, and especially appreciated how he would see people like himself on the stage. He especially remembers seeing a production of Into the Woods, and was enraptured with how the staging impacted him.
“I’ve always been interested in telling stories, which I know isn’t that original among actors, but specifically I was interested in representation,” he said. “I loved to watch plays and listen to people sing and I hungered to see people like me.”
He graduated from the College of William & Mary in 2013 with degrees in both English and theater, and went to Cincinnati for a year to work with the Cincinnati Players in the Park, before heading closer to home and the D.C. area.
Since then, he’s worked at the Kennedy Center, the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Round House Theatre, to name a few, and he’s enjoyed getting to be part of the talented theater community here.
Working with Gash, he notes, has taught him a lot. “Kent said something really interesting. He said, ‘we’re doing a spectacle of the play for a 5-year-old, so they are going to get something from every aspect.’ I think everyone will be excited about the production and this collection of talent,” he says. “People should just let the show wash over them and take the journey with us. It’s incredible in both sights and sounds.”