Why, yes, we would like to “Ease on Down The Road” if the road in question is yellow and leads to the 5th Avenue Theatre’s current production of THE WIZ, the beloved 1974 Broadway musical that reframed L. Frank Baum’s also beloved children’s book from 1900 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from an African-American perspective. It’s just a part of the many successful adaptations of Baum’s fantasy classic that has included the iconic 1939 MGM musical film with Judy Garland, a very early Broadway adaptation in 1902, and the reimagined version of Oz as told in Wicked, the insanely successful Gregory Maguire novel adapted into a hit Broadway musical of the same name in 2003.
The Wiz was also turned into a film in 1978 which didn’t do so well at the box office, probably due to the fact the film had a confusing script, poor casting choices, and a director not experienced with musical theater. A live television broadcast on NBC in 2015 with an updated book was well received and sparked an interest in The Wiz being staged in new productions. (Added: and, it’s just been announced this week that a new version of The Wiz is scheduled for a national tour and a Broadway revival starting in the fall of 2023.)
And really, that’s the only thing that holds back the 5th Avenue’s production of The Wiz…the book for the show feels clunky and dated. It’s apparent in the first scene of the show as we’re quickly and awkwardly introduced to Dorothy in Kansas with her Auntie Em and a twister a’comin’. We spend about 30 seconds meeting the characters before Auntie Em bursts into a song, then the twister comes and…POOF…we’re in Oz. Meanwhile, the ending of the show has the opposite problem, as it drags out far longer than it needs to with a lot of dialogue, too many characters and not enough “lets wrap the show up so folks can go home!” attitude. And, some of the mid-70s slang hasn’t aged well either. Hopefully, the latest revival will fix some of these problems.
But, The Wiz still works because it manages to overcome its corny book with a still vibrant and exciting score that features both terrific upbeat numbers like “Ease On Down The Road” and “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” the big number for Evilene, the Wicked Witch of the West, as well as gorgeous ballads like Dorothy’s Act I opening song, “Soon As I Get Home” and Act II’s “Believe In Yourself”. The beautiful songs by Charlie Smalls and the riveting production numbers are The Wiz’s chief strengths.
And, a strong cast performing those great songs is key to making it all work and this productions has a wonderful cast. Our Dorothy is Kataka Corn and they’re blessed with a strong, gorgeous, powerful voice that manages to bring the house down with Dorothy’s first song. Both Nehemiah Hooks and Phillip Attmore are great as the Scarecrow and Tin Man respectively, each shining in their signature songs with strong singing and dance skills, especially Attmore’s tap solo. But, of course it’s the Cowardly Lion who tends to stop the show and Nate Tenenbaum’s superb comedic talents are a perfect fit between actor and role. He’s hilarious in every scene he’s in.
And, we also have a solid A-list roster of talent to play all the Witches and the Wiz as well who has been gender switched to female for this production with Be Russell providing strong vocal and comedic talents to that role. As for the three Witches (yes, The Wiz has an extra one, just like the original novel) we’re treated to the strong performances of Sarah Russell, as the bumbling Addaperle; Trina Mills, as the ethereal Glinda and the show stopping power of Shaunyce Omar as the wicked, Evilene who pretty much stops the show with her powerhouse rendition of “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News”. It’s a very solid ensemble of talent.
Visually, this production is…ok. The Emerald City looked pretty sharp but Kansas and Munchkinland seemed pretty boring. The costumes were mostly pretty but….seemed a bit rented. It kinda felt like the 5th Avenue was trying to save some money with the design work this time.
(Also: the place to note it was COLD AS HELL in the theater! I’m hot blooded and I’m normally fine in big drafty theaters but it was really frigid in there on opening night. And, I wasn’t the only one to notice…everyone was bundled up in their coats and complaining! TURN UP THE HEAT, 5TH AVENUE!!!!)
Again, the big numbers in this show with the classic songs and talented performers are the chief reason to see this production. As already stated, the book isn’t up to the high standards of the songs and director/choreographer Kelli Foster Warder’s staging didn’t always overcome some of the book’s flaws with a clunky opening in Kansas and then with a rather abrupt opening to Act II where we suddenly find ourselves in Evilene’s castle and her big number without any sense of where we are or why. The long drawn out ending could have also used a bit of directorial finesse to tighten it all up.
But, again, the songs and the cast overcome all the weak spots. Oh, and Toto! Toto is DIVINE! Here, Toto is played by the adorable Tessa (with fellow cairn terrier Alfie as understudy) and Tessa was an absolute jewel on opening night.
SUCH A GOOD GIRL!!!
The rest of the show could have been a complete pile of poo and I’d still tell you to go see The Wiz at the 5th Avenue just to see adorable Tessa as Toto!
(Note: they totally wimp out and Toto doesn’t get to go to Oz in this version but at least we get Toto in the opening and closing scenes!)