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The Wiz
Adapted from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Book by William F. Brown with addtional material by Tina Tippit
Music and Lyrics by Charlie Smalls
Additional Material for The Muny production by Amber Ruffin
Directed by Denis Jones
Choreographed by Camille A. Brown
The Muny

June 19, 2018

Darius de Haas, Nathan Lee Graham, Danyel Fulton, Jared Grimes, James T. Lane
Photo: The Muny

As part of their 100th season, the Muny is presenting a show they haven’t produced since 1982: The Wiz. The well-known adaptation of the Wizard of Oz story by African-American writers and featuring an all black cast, The Wiz at the Muny has been updated and given a lavish, stylish, superbly cast production that–in reflection of its story–brings a great deal of brains, heart, and courage to the Muny stage.

Based more on the original book, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz than the popular and perhaps even more well-known 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, this production of The Wiz contains elements taken more from the book while also occasionally acknowledging both the 1939 Wizard of Oz film and the 1978 film version of The Wiz. With a score influenced by R&B, soul, gospel, disco and pop, the show tells this story in its own unique, distinctive way. The stage version debuted on Broadway in 1975, with a look and sound that was innovative and contemporary for its time. For the Muny’s version, acclaimed television writer Amber Ruffin worked with the original writers to update the script for a 2018 audience, along with excellent new orchestrations by music director Darryl Archibald and vibrant, energetic choreography by Camille A. Brown. The result is a production of The Wiz that honors and celebrates the orginal while also reflecting a more contemporary setting for today.

The story is the familiar one, as young Dorothy (Danyel Fulton) lives on a farm in Kansas with her Aunt Em (Demetria McKinney), Uncle Henry (Rhaamell Burke-Missouri), and dog, Toto (Nessa). Dorothy feels misunderstood, though, and longs for something more, whereupon she is whisked away by a tornado (here represented in striking fashion by dancers) to the Land of Oz, where she is informed by the Munchkins that her house has fallen on–and killed–the Wicked Witch of the East. She then meets Addaperle (E. Faye Butler), the Good Witch of the North, who tells her about The Wiz, the powerful wizard who can perhaps help her get home. Dorothy also dons the magic silver slippers (silver as they were in Baum’s original book) and follows the Yellow Brick Road (represented here by four dancers–Chloé Davis, Karma Jenkins, Amber Barbee Pickens, and Allysa Shorte) to look for The Wiz in the Emerald City. Along the way, she meets and befriends Scarecrow (Jared Grimes), who wants a brain; Tinman (James T. Lane), who wants a heart; and Lion (Darius de Haas), who wants courage. All join Dorothy on her quest, hoping the Wiz will be able to grant their desires as well. When they finally meet The Wiz (Nathan Lee Graham), he tells them he’ll grant their wishes only if they are able to destroy the evil Wicked Witch of the West, Evillene (also Butler), who runs a blue-jeans producing sweatshop and terrorizes the land, and who also has a grudge against Dorothy for killing her sister and taking the silver slippers, which Evillene covets for herself. In the end, all the main characters learn more about themselves and their own strengths, as well as what is important to them, and Glinda (also McKinney), the Good Witch of the South, helps Dorothy to think about what she has learned.

I’ve seen The Wiz in three versions–a high school production years ago, the film, and the live televised version on NBC in 2015. All of those versions were slightly different, and this one at the Muny is different still. It’s essentially the same, but the jokes have been updated, the dialogue has been changed here and there, and the look has been modified so that everything is a lot more “now” than 1975. The design is excellent, with Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s sets filling the Muny stage with big, vivid backdrops and presenting the various locations in clever ways, like the Poppy scene and its lip-shaped sofas, or the entrance to the Emerald City, which is like the entrance to an exclusive nightclub, and the Emerald City itself with its dance club atmosphere. The Muny’s scenery wall is put to excellent use as well with memorable video design by Greg Emetaz,  as the location changes from Kansas to Oz and takes Dorothy and her friends to various places around Oz, from Munchkinland to Evillene’s palace, to the Emerald City and beyond. The costumes, by Leon Dobkowski, are striking, whimsical, and distinctive, from Evillene’s light-up skirt to Dorothy’s shiny silver slippers, to the Wiz’s dazzling green outfits, and more. Rob Denton’s lighting also contributes to the overall spectacular effect of this marvelous show.

The cast is uniformly strong, led by Fulton in a stellar performance as the determined Dorothy. She’s got excellent stage presence, a strong, powerful voice, great dance skills, and superb chemistry with her co-stars. She’s the star of the show, but she also has some great co-stars, including Grimes, Lane, and de Haas who are ideally cast in their roles as the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion, with Grimes and Lane having some especially strong dance moments, and de Haas excelling in comic timing. There are also two great double performances by McKinney as both the motherly Aunt Em and the wise Glinda, and Butler who is equally excellent as the kindly Addaperle and the gleefully evil Evillene. Graham, as the Wiz, also puts in a memorable performance. There’s also a great ensemble, all playing multiple roles from Munchkins to Crows to Poppies and more. There are energetic, intricately choreographed production numbers, from the hit “Ease On Down the Road” to the joyful “Brand New Day”.

This is a truly wonderful production. Filling the big Muny stage and featuring a stellar cast, The Wiz is full of heart, soul, comedy, drama, some spectacular dancing, and a celebration of friendship, family, home, and hope. It’s a magnficent show.

Darius de Haas, Jared Grimes, James T. Lane, E. Faye Butler, Danyel Fulton
Photo: the Muny

The Muny is presenting The Wiz in Forest Park until June 25, 2018

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