Curving slides, bouncing wooden bridges and other pieces of playground equipment stand in for the merry old Land of Oz in True Colors Theatre Company's The Wiz. The playsets evoke the topsy-turvy nature of Dorothy's visit to Oz and provide for showy entrances, but mostly they remind the audience of the youth of True Colors' cast.
For the revival of the funky musical treatment of The Wizard of Oz, True Colors artistic director Kenny Leon cast 25 performers aged 7 to 22. The concept makes perfect sense, given the source material as children's literature, and it provides families with a rambunctious alternative to predictable holiday fare.
But in practice, this Wiz feels more like a sorcerer's apprentice. Some numbers soar like a flying monkey, others come down like a cottage atop a wicked witch. Leon has long dreamed of reviving The Wiz; he programmed it into his final season as Alliance Theatre artistic director, but his successor, Susan V. Booth, replaced it with Woody Guthrie's American Song for budget reasons. True Colors' The Wiz feels like a shadow of the Leon production that could have been, and though it's filled with cute, vivacious moments, it's more "Sesame Street" than Funky Town.
The multicultural cast consists primarily of high school and college students, and their inexperience proves hard to ignore. When Aunt Em (Rachel Monique Bethea) sings affectionately to Dorothy (Tatiana McConnico), the two players remain practically motionless. After the whirlwind whisks Dorothy to Oz, she's greeted by munchkins in long coats and top hats who could be contestants in a grade school talent competition.
The Wiz gets welcome jolts of energy with the arrival of each of Dorothy's traveling companions. Dressed like a loose-limbed Raggedy Andy doll, Scarecrow (Tory Thurman) breaks into "You Can't Win," a surprisingly gritty tune comparable to a slinky Curtis Mayfield composition. Richard Miron makes a boyish but confident Tin Man and with wholesome humor sings "Slip Some Oil to Me" (a song with the potential to be the most lewdly suggestive thing you've ever heard).
And as the Cowardly Lion, Devere Rogers commands the stage like a Broadway-bound star. He gives a macho swagger to "Mean Ole Lion," then collapses into hilarious neuroses. Many of the script's topical jokes feel stuck in the '70s, but Rogers strikes gold with the Lion's addiction to therapy: "I've been seeing a high-priced owl for three years now," he whimpers.
True Colors' spare production frequently downplays The Wiz's clever urban renewal of the classic material. (I missed touches from the 1978 Diana Ross movie, like the Lion emerging as a statue in front of the New York Public Library.) The script cleverly spoofs inner-city problems and celebrates cosmopolitan splendor -- to a girl from Kansas, Manhattan can be every bit as magical as the Emerald City. The material calls for a more flamboyant design -- it could easily support more '70s funk or contemporary crunk -- but such lavishness may be beyond True Colors' financial reach.
Charlie Small's songs hold up well. "Ease on Down the Road" remains a superb number to pluck up your spirits, and Act Two's "Everybody Rejoice" proves even more exuberant.
But Leon and his young players must still wrestle with the material's stumbling blocks. In the first act, Marcus Johnson's unseen Wiz is manifested by a deafening offstage voice with a high-pitched lisp. The Wiz closes Act One with the James Brown-esque tune "So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard," but a disembodied voice on a loudspeaker can't anchor a showstopping musical number. (Even a puppet or a shadow would pack more punch.)
As the Wicked Witch of the West, Tye Tavaras belts out the delightful gospel number "No Bad News," which suggests that the witch's own high spirits come at her slaves' expense. But she gets dispatched early in Act Two, and The Wiz misses her voluptuous villainy.
Perhaps a more seasoned cast could rise to these problems, but The Wiz's youngsters typically prove skilled at just a few things without being fully rounded performers. McConnico played the young Celie in the Alliance's The Color Purple, but here she comes across like an "American Idol" finalist. She has a marvelous voice capable of hitting and sustaining impressive notes, but she's far more tentative when she has to move around and be physically demonstrative.
Leon may have been understandably distracted while directing the show. He just finished helming the Broadway premiere of August Wilson's The Gem of the Ocean, which opened a mere 10 days before The Wiz. The Wiz lives up to True Colors' mission to revive neglected plays from the African-American canon, and perhaps one day Leon will be able to stage a version that does justice to it. But for now, he'll have to say goodbye, yellow brick road.
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