Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

The Wiz

Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 17, 2024

The Wiz. Music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls. Book by William F. Brown with additional material by Amber Ruffin. Direction by Schele Williams. Choreography by JaQuel Knight. Scenic design by Hannah Beachler. Costume design by Sharen Davis. Lighting design by Ryan J. O'Gara. Sound design by Jon Weston. Video and projection design by Daniel Brodie. Music supervision, orchestrations, and music arrangements by Joseph Joubert. Vocal arrangements and music arrangements by Allen René Louis. Dance music arrangements by Adam Blackstone. Music direction by Paul Byssainthe Jr.
Cast: Nichelle Lewis, Wayne Brady, Deborah Cox, Melody A. Betts, Kyle Ramar Freeman, Phillip Johnson Richardson, Avery Wilson, Lauryn Adams, Maya Bowles, Shayla Caldwell, Jay Copeland, Allyson Kaye Daniel, Judith Franklin, Michael Samarie George, Collin Heyward, Amber Jackson, Olivia Jackson, Christina Jones, Polanco Jones, Kolby Kindle, Mariah Lyttle, Kareem Marsh, Alan Mingo, Jr., Anthony Murphy, Dustin Praylow, Cristina Raé, Matthew Sims, Jr, Avilon Trust Tate, Keenan D. Washington, and Timothy Wilson.
Theater:Marquis Theatre, 210 W 46th St.

Nichelle Lewis and Deborah Cox
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Although it won a slew of Tony Awards in 1975, The Wiz has never really been considered a great musical. In the right hands, however, it is a thoroughly enjoyable one, and its buoyant pleasures abound. Unfortunately, those pleasures are intermittent in the current production, which arrived on Broadway after a lengthy national tour, and the show's oft-repeated pledge to ease on down the road is at times more of a slog.

The revival, which has been directed by Schele Williams, begins with a visual coup: In a nod to the introductory sepia tone of 1939's beloved film, The Wizard of Oz, the Kansas of this Wiz is designed in black and white. Dorothy (Nichelle Lewis, who is ingratiating throughout and has an impressive belt) and Aunt Em (Melody A. Betts, touching and magisterial as the maternal Em, but regrettably over-the-top in her dual role of Evillene) are costumed in monochromatic dresses, and the gray-wash lighting, the farmhouse set pieces, and projected backdrop all reflect the young heroine's colorless and stormy adolescence. (Sharen Davis's costumes, Ryan J. O'Gara's lighting, Hanna Beachler's scenery, and Daniel Brodie's video and projection design are often in competition to be crowned The Most Garish in other parts of the show, but they work together brilliantly in the first several minutes.)

When Dorothy arrives in Oz, she does not enter a sumptuous Technicolor world, but rather a kitschy, Mardi Gras celebration. In this rendition, the jubilation surrounding the house-crushing death of Evamean, the Wicked Witch of the West, includes a New Orleans-style second line parade led by the deceased's sister Addaperle (Allyson Kaye Daniel, who is subsumed by the overly busy staging), the Good Witch of the North.

William F. Brown's original book of the musical has received some tweaks and new material by Amber Ruffin, including additional backstory for Dorothy and a few topical references, such as an allusion to The Lion King. The changes, though, seem negligible and ultimately unnecessary. A bigger problem is that the scenes are presented both visually and in performance, except in a few cases, with cartoonish exaggeration. As the Scarecrow, Avery Wilson is suitably rubber-limbed and athletic, but his brainless jokes don't land. Phillip Johnson Richardson's Tin Man has a rich, soulful voice, and provides much-appreciated subtlety and dare I say, heart. As the Lion, Kyle Ramar Freeman is vocally brash and exciting, but he tends to overdo the mincing and squealing in his book scenes.

The featured performers, Wayne Brady as The Wiz and Deborah Cox as Glinda, bring a touch of star quality to their appearances that are just slightly more than cameos. Brady is suitably oily in his showcase number, "Meet the Wizard," and nails the humor after his fraudulence has been revealed. Cox is a regal and glamorous good witch, but vocally, she is somewhat underpowering in the show's anthemic "If You Believe." (Then again, Lena Horne, who sang it in the film version and indelibly on stage in the renowned The Lady and Her Music, has raised the bar to the stratosphere.)

Kyle Ramar Freeman, Nichelle Lewis, Wayne Brady,
Phillip Johnson Richardson, and Avery Wilson

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
The songs by Charlie Smalls (with an assist by Luther Vandross, who contributed "Everybody Rejoice") are eminently tuneful, but because of either overzealous music direction and arrangements by Joseph Joubert (which do not improve on Harold Wheeler's original orchestrations) or ill-conceived sound design (Jon Weston), many of the lyrics are difficult to discern.

Jaquel Knight's choreography does not help. Some of the numbers, including "Everybody Rejoice" (which features some of the dancers wearing inexplicable outfits than can best be described as pajama onesies), seem perfunctory and indifferently danced. The second act opener, "The Emerald City" (with music by Timothy Graphenreed), draws on movement and attitudes from contemporary ball culture, but the multi-part dance segment goes on way too long.

The Wiz can't seem to catch a break. In 1984, only five years after the original production closed, a revival starring Stephanie Mills (the show's first Dorothy) shuttered after just thirteen performances. A well-received (and heavily revised) production opened at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2006 but never found its way to Broadway. The Encores! Summer Stars series presented a three-week engagement with a starry cast in 2009, but it did not fare well critically and quietly disappeared (for the record, I'll state that I found much to enjoy in that production).

It can't be denied that the musical is flawed. Rather than try to iron out the book problems or attempt to hoodwink audiences with flashy, high-tech spectacle and campy performances, the best approach might be to embrace the messiness and find the magic within. Only then might audiences experience the euphoria of The Wiz, or as one of the song titles describes, "The Feeling We Once Had."