Much like its storied source material, (Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), The Wiz is an American cultural institution. Seven Tony Awards in 1975. Numerous revivals. A 1978 film adaptation turned cult-classic. And a live staging on NBC in 2015. Yet, I’ve never seen it and chose, as I often do, to walk into Ford’s Theatre without expectations weighing me down.
As always, I’m glad I did. The Wiz takes a tale with timeless themes and layers on, not just black culture, but all pop culture (I would argue) while offering a spectacle that’s visual morphine. Glorious costumes. Beautiful movements (including a trapeze sequence during “Funky Monkeys”). Oh, and a cast with voices that, as the lady behind me exclaimed, could be on The Voice. Yeah DC’s got talent. A lot of it is onstage at Ford’s Theatre.
You know the premise: orphan Dorothy (Ines Nassara) is blown away from her beloved Kansas, Aunt Em, and Uncle Henry by a tornado , crash landing in the magical world of Oz, where she encounters silver slippers, witches, munchkins (who are positively rotund in their bell-shaped costumes), and winged monkeys (headed by Daryl A. Spiers). In her quest to get home via the power of The Wiz (Jobari Parker-Namdar), she takes on three traveling companions to help her “Ease on Down the Road”: Scarecrow (Hasani Allen), Tinman (Kevin McAllister), and Lion (Christopher Michael Richardson). She’s helped along by a good witch, Addaperle and kills a bad one, Evillene (both played by Monique Midgette, who does a triple play, filling the shoes of Aunt Em as well) while also liberating a group of people known as the Winkies (“led” by the Lord High Underling, played by Jaysen Wright, who is also Uncle Henry and the Gatekeeper of Oz).
Glinda (Awa Sal Secka), aka the Good Witch of the South, turns up looking like an African queen, in the final moments to reveal the silver slippers’ secret to Dorothy, sending her home at last. Secka’s deep, rich voice fills the moment with heft, as an entourage attired in traditional African textiles, just as she is, surrounds her. It’s a celebration of African culture, just like the rendition of “Everybody Rejoice,” which uses the drum as if it’s the renewed heartbeat of the Winkies—finally free of the tyrannical Evillene.
The dance and movement—from the winged monkeys’ flying spins to the munchkins rolling around on stools while tap dancing—draw you in and the characters keep you in your seat. Midgette (Em, Addaperle and Evilene) is a woman who can do it all, and I loved Prince, er, I mean The Wiz—the man, the myth, the legend. Parker-Namdar comes out full of flash and fire. A dash of Little Richard. A hint of Elvis. A modicum of street preacher. A touch of hustler, when he lets the façade drop and unveils his true self—a car salesman from Nebraska. Richardson’s Lion, who seems to share the closest bond with Dorothy, is a real treat. Funnily chocking up his cowardice to an overbearing mama.
closes May 12, 2018
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“No, wait!” he shouts to Dorothy, Tinman and Scarecrow, “I was an only cub!” simultaneously pulling a hankie from his coat pocket.
McAllister dons tap dance shoes as the Tinman and shows, on “What Would I Do if I Could Feel,” what we’ve always known; the Tinman has heart. Allen’s Scarecrow is a smooth-moving extraordinaire who delivers wit with ease and sings with a trio scene-stealing vultures. Dorothy, of course, anchors all this craziness, with reason and compassion—and a bit of fierceness, singing “Be A Lion” to a lion in need with power, presence and soul. Nassara’s Dorothy is the type of strong, kind, confident, and driven figure girls need to see onstage.
The Wiz is a show that could also be seen as woefully over-the-top, with glitz and glamour overshadowing messages about oppression, self-acceptance and black America. Yet, Ford’s Theatre’s iteration finds a balance. I won’t go so far as to say that it makes any grand, overt political statements, but staging it at Ford’s just down the street from an embattled Administration whose actions, or lack of, on civil rights have reinvigorated meaningful conversation and movement around minority treatment (African-Americans, Muslims, LGQBT individuals) in America, adds a layer of gleeful poignancy that imbues the show—whose music is wonderfully of the 1970s—with renewed importance. That it also acknowledges the here and now by dropping Black Panther shout-outs reminds us that it, with its all-black cast on Broadway in 1975, ushered in an America where T’Challa reigns and Wakanda is forever.
It feels like the right time to have The Wiz back here in the nation’s capital. That it’s also so good—thanks to the direction of Kent Gash, who has magic hands—is like a bowl of sugar hidden inside another bowl of sugar. Sweet. Sweet. Sweet. Through and through.
The Wiz . Book by William F. Brown . Music by and Lyrics by Charlie Smalls . Directed by Kent Gash. Choreography by Dell Howlett. Featuring Jonathan Adriel, Hasani Allen, DeMoya Watson Brown, Ashley D. Buster, Jocelyn E. Isaac, Jade Jones, Kevin McAllister, Monique Midgette, Da’Von T. Moody, Ines Nassara, Solomon Parker, Jobari Parker-Namdar, Christopher Michael Richardson, Awa Sal Secka, Daryl A. Spiers, Melissa Victor, Jaysen Wright, Phil Young and Tobias Young. Production: Jason Sherwood, Scenic Design; Kara Harmon, Costume Design; Rui Rita, Lighting Design; David Budries, Sound Design, Clint Allen, Projection Design; Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas, Hair and Makeup Design; Zach Campion, Dialects and Voice Director; Patrick Pearson, Casting; and Taryn Friend, Assistant Stage Manager. Darius Smith, Music Director and Orchestra. Stage Managed by Craig A. Horness. Produced by Ford’s Theatre . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.