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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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The Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum
Adapted by Frank Gabrielson with music of the MGM motion pictures score by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, background music by Herbert Stothart
Directed and Choreographed by Lara Teeter
Variety Children’s Theatre
October 19, 2017

The Wizard of Oz is a classic tale about dreams, home, and family. Adaptations–and especially those based on the classic 1939 movie starring Judy Garland–have been staged in various places around the world for decades. It’s a very popular show, especially for family audiences. It’s an ideal selection for Variety Children’s Theatre, with its huge casts of adults and children, featuring director and choreographer Lara Teeter’s inventive staging and excellent opportunities for the child performers especially, making for an entertaining and vibrant show that’s definitely a crowd-pleaser.

Variety Children’s Theatre is now in its ninth year, producing shows in association with Variety the Children’s Charity, which works with children with special needs. The shows allow the Variety kids the opportunity to participate in a full-scale production either on stage or behind the scenes, along with more local children and professional actors and crew. The Wizard of Oz is the first Variety show I’ve seen, although I had heard great things about their productions in the past. Overall, this is an impressive production, utilizing the space at UMSL’s Touhill Performing Arts Center with a great deal of energy and creativity.

It’s the Wizard of Oz. It’s so well known that I don’t think I really need to summarize the plot. It’s a beloved classic, but it’s one that’s been done so many times that it can get to the point where it doesn’t seem like anything new can be done with it. This production proves that the show can be performed as written, but with still finding new and fresh approaches to the staging and characterization. I’m usually impressed when a production casts a Dorothy who doesn’t try to sound like Judy Garland, and this production does that well with the excellent Elizabeth Teeter, but it goes even further, with a characterization of the Wicked Witch of the West (Allison Newman) that is truly novel, as far as I’ve seen. The rest of the familiar characters are all here–Aunt Em (Laurie McConnell), Uncle Henry (Rich Pisarkiewicz), the Scarecrow (Drew Humphrey), Tin Man (Martin Fox), and Cowardly Lion (Patrick Blindauer), as well as Glinda (Julie Tabash Kelsheimer), the Wizard himself (Alan Knoll) and, of course, Toto (Nessa). The story is the usual story, but what’s most notable here is the inventive staging, including excellent flying effects and the excellent utilization of the adult and children’s ensembles.

The production values are excellent, from Dunsi Dai’s colorful, versatile set that relies a lot on movable set pieces, to John Wylie’s dazzling lighting, to the well-suited costumes by Robert Fletcher and Kansas City Costume. The flying effects, from Flying by Foy, are among the most impressive I’ve seen in a St. Louis production, as various characters and set pieces “fly” with seeming effortlessness. The staging is especially strong as well, particularly in the ensemble numbers which provide excellent moments for the child performers, especially in Munchkinland, and for the adult ensemble in the Emerald City sequences and in the Witch’s castle. Teeter’s energetic choreography is also a highlight, from the various solos for the Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow, to the spectacular “Jitterbug” sequence. Teeter is especially adept at incorporating all the cast members into the production numbers in inventive ways.

There’s a great cast here, from the earnest, strong-voiced Elizabeth Teeter as Dorothy to Newman’s truly hilarious,  interpretation of the Wicked Witch. She’s younger, and kind of whiny, spoiled and entitled. I’ve never seen the Witch played that way before, but here it works, and Newman does a good job of being funny and menacing at turns. There are also winning performances from the scene-stealing Blindauer as the Lion and as Kansas farmhand Zeke; the flexible Humphrey as the Scarecrow and farmhand Hunk; and from Fox as the amiable Tin Man and farmhand Hickory. Pisarkiewicz is also impressive as Uncle Henry and especially as the Emerald City guard, and McConnell turns in a solid performance as Aunt Em. Knoll, as the Wizard and as Professor Marvel in the Kansas scenes, is also in good form, and there’s an excellent canine performance from Nessa as Toto. The children’s ensemble is excellent, as well, with notable performances from Nick George as the Mayor of Munchkinland and Charlie Mathis as the Munchkin Coroner. The adult ensemble features excellent performances from all, and especially Will Bonfiglio, Nathaniel Hirst, Mitchell Holsclaw, and Caleb Long as the Apple Trees. Everyone does a great job, though, from the Munchkins to the Winkies to the Flying Monkeys and more.

I’m glad I was able to see this performance. It’s a huge production, with a huge cast, and as is fitting for The Wizard of Oz, a lot of heart, brains, and courage. This is a thoroughly entertaining show, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Variety Children’s Theatre will present in the future.

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The Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum
With Music and Lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg
Background Music by Herbert Stothart
Directed by John Tartaglia
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
The Muny
June 13, 2016

Nicholas Rodriguez, Kevin Cahoon, Danielle Bowen, Rich Pisarkiewicz, Stephen Wallem Photo: The Muny

Nicholas Rodriguez, Kevin Cahoon, Danielle Bowen, Rich Pisarkiewicz, Stephen Wallem
Photo: The Muny

It’s June in St. Louis, and that means it’s time for the Muny again. It’s the 98th season for the illustrious venue, and first on the schedule this year is one of its most popular shows, The Wizard of Oz. Based largely on the classic 1939 film version of L. Frank Baum’s story, the Muny’s latest production is a crowd-pleasing production with all the expected elements. Directed by Muny veteran John Tartaglia and featuring a well-selected cast and the Muny’s Youth Ensemble, it’s a big production that fills the large stage well.

I probably don’t need to explain the plot. It’s The Wizard of Oz, one of the best-known stories in American culture, and well-known around the world. Most people associate the story with the Judy Garland film, and the Muny’s production, with the exception of a few added musical and dance sequences, is essentially the film on stage. The familiar characters are all here, including Kansas farm girl Dorothy (Danielle Bowen) and her little dog Toto (Dusty, who is a scene-stealer), who lives on a farm with her Aunt Em (Lynn Humphrey) and Uncle Henry (Rich Pisarkiewicz). Then, there’s the tornado which takes Dorothy and Toto to the land of Oz, where they are sent by Glinda the Good Witch (Leah Berry) to meet the Wizard of Oz (PJ Benjamin) in hopes of returning home to Kansas. Of course she meets the Scarecrow (Kevin Cahoon), Tin Man (Nicholas Rodriguez), and Cowardly Lion (Stephen Wallem), who join her on her quest while they all seek to avoid the Wicked Witch of the West (Peggy Roeder), who covets the precious Ruby Slippers that Dorothy wears. Everything is here, from the famous songs to the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City, and the familiar theme that “there’s no place like home”.

This is an entertaining production, with a good cast, from Bowen’s Garland-esque Dorothy to Roeder’s more comically villainous interpretation of the Wicked Witch and Benjamin’s charming humbug of a Wizard. Dorothy’s trio of friends are also well-played, with Wallem’s particularly energetic rendition of the Lion being the real standout. Berry is also fine as Glinda, and Humphrey and Pisarkiewicz are a suitably kind and caring Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. There’s also an excellent ensemble, especially in the dance sequences representing the cyclone, and the Poppies sequence, and in the Munchkinland and Emerald City scenes. A song that was cut from the film, “The Jitterbug”, is the real musical highlight, performed with energy and style by Bowen, Cahoon, Rodriguez, Wallem, and company, dynamically choreographed by Ralph Perkins.

This is a colorful production, utilizing the film-inspired convention of presenting the Kansas sequences in sepia tones and then going to a full spectrum of colors once Dorothy arrives in Oz. Robert Mark Morgan’s versatile set and Leon Dobkowski’s detailed costumes are all suitably colorful. There’s also strikingly effective lighting by John Lasiter, and good use of video designed by Nathan W. Scheur. The microphones, particularly for the Scarecrow, were inconsistent and sometimes produced a hollow, distant sound, but otherwise the technical aspects of this production work well. Magic and wonder are what theatregoers expect with this show, and for the most part, this production gives them that.

The Wizard of Oz at the  Muny is just what audiences would expect, and it’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser. While it is essentially a staged production of the film for the most part, the performers are well-cast, the songs are well-sung, the the familiar story is well-told. While I personally tend to prefer productions that aren’t quite as close reproductions of the film, this is certainly entertaining and it’s a fun season opener. I’m looking forward to seeing what else the Muny has in store this summer.

Cast of The Wizard of Oz Photo: The Muny

Cast of The Wizard of Oz
Photo: The Muny

 The Muny’s production of The Wizard of Oz runs until June 22, 2016.

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