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Review | ‘The Wiz’ is more about having fun than creating a cohesive story



Review | ‘The Wiz’ is more about having fun than creating a cohesive story

The latest revival of “The Wiz” just wants to be fun. And that’s a problem.

The original was a rarity. When it launched in 1975, the musical won the Tony Award for best musical and was among a handful of Broadway productions at the time to feature an all-Black ensemble. Soulful, rich, drenched in color and magic, the original offered a vibrancy unseen before. Songs like “Home” and the funky “Ease on Down the Road” are etched into the American songbook.

Promoted as “The Wiz” through the “Blackest of Black Lenses” in a New York Times feature, the new revival that just opened on Broadway is in touch with its legacy, delivering a pleasurable experience. But ultimately, this “Wiz” is adrift. The production is busied with creating entertainment and signposting Blackness, at the cost of a cohesive, artistic vision.

The adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” has Dorothy (Nichelle Lewis) once again in slippers (silver, not ruby red) picking up a gaggle of friends (Avery Wilson, Phillip Johnson Richardson, and Kyle Ramar Freeman) as they travel to find the great and powerful wizard (Wayne Brady) who can solve all problems. Harmonies and solos frequently receive rapturous applause, a testament to the ensemble’s bountiful talent. Lewis is a delicate Dorothy, delivering a gorgeous and emotional rendition of the tender song “Home.” Melody A. Betts, as Aunt Em and the wicked witch Evillene, is a powerhouse, bringing a humor and vocal prowess to the gospel-esque “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.” Brady is an energetic and hilarious Wiz, fully grasping his larger-than-life persona. Freeman is hysterical as Lion, frequently causing the theater to erupt in laughter.

But the sound of the music is overwhelming. The vocals of any given performer are frequently swallowed by swooping orchestrations. Song after song, vocalists belt to be heard (Deborah Cox, who plays Glinda, was nearly inaudible during her verse on “He’s the Wiz,” a real shame given her riches of ability.) With performers forced to sing-shout, the routine grows increasingly familiar.

Choices by director Schele Williams are similarly frustrating. The revival lacks a synergy across images. Projections and props to move us through locations make Oz look generic and cheap.

Scenic designer Hannah Beachler, known for her work on the Black Panther series, borrows from a swath of Black-inspired imagery: the colorful houses of Black New Orleans, Adinkra symbols carved into trees. Afropicks and power fists adorn the Wiz’s green throne. But they are piecemeal, never blending into a sustained vision.

For a musical teeming with visuals, Williams neglects to illustrate significant moments. There is no yellow brick road, one of the musical’s most singular images. It is replaced by dancers dressed in yellow guard outfits printed to look like a road. Their standard entrance-and-exit grows dull, especially when their choreography doesn’t quite fill up the rest of the stage.

We also never fully see Dorothy return home and reunite with her aunt (the play closes just as she arrives at her house). And the melting of Evillene happens atop a scaled tower, so that audience members only see faint wisps of smoke to know that she has been — rather quickly — vanquished.

The musical’s four protagonists are often relegated to the stage’s sidelines or blocked by dancing ensemble members. The choreography by JaQuel Knight, known for his work with Beyoncé, is crowd-pleasing: a mix of twirls, occasional twerks, and lifts. But much like the show’s other elements, there isn’t a distinct connection to narrative.

William F. Brown’s original book has been updated by comedian Amber Ruffin, whose jokes are sometimes funny (though one where Evillene is scared to get her silk press wet is a bit cringe). Ruffin doesn’t waste time explaining her humor, allowing those of us who get it to get it.

But dramaturgical questions around Dorothy remain behind the wall of quips. Why does Dorothy suddenly consider Kansas “home,” especially after sharing her deep isolation in the rural hellscape? How does Dorothy feel throughout her own journey, especially as most of her dialogue is used to continually encourage her fellow friends? These basic queries are left unanswered in pursuit of a good time, and Dorothy is pushed to the outskirts of her own story.

In many ways, “The Wiz” is a charming watch. It’s enjoyable to feel the audience be genuinely amused. But its commitment to merriment leads it down an extremely uneasy road.

The Wiz, ongoing at the Marquis Theatre in New York. 2 hours, 30 minutes, including an

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