The Wiz lacks fizz
Newsday (May 25, 1984) Has the Yellow Brick Road stretched on too long? The new revival of 1975's The Wiz raises that question when it ought to be lifting our spirits.
Maybe some of the people involved with the all-black musical have been doing the show too long. Or maybe the funkiness of a decade ago just seems dated now. Whatever the reason, a lot of the fun has drained out of The Wiz. Now the show is mostly shrill (hurt in part by poor amplification).
One thing that's missing in this latest visit to Oz is an endearing Dorothy. Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy for four years on Broadway and throughout the revival's nine-month tour, seems now to be played-out in the role. And, at 26, she's too old. (Sure, Diana Ross was a grown-up Dorothy in Hollywood's The Wiz, but the flick was no whiz.) Though Mills is still diminutive enough to look like a little girl, she doesn't project the sense of wide-eyed wonder the show needs.
Mills also doesn't project her speaking voice very well; at times she delivers her lines so softly she seems to be carrying on a private conversation with the other cast members. She may be saving herself for her songs she still has a big, belting singing voice. Her songs, though, are a little like the Tinman before he meets the Wiz Ã± the heart is missing.
Mills' lackluster performance leaves something of a vacuum for the other performers to fill, and they don't manage well enough. Charles Valentino and Howard Porter, as the Scarecrow and the Tinman, respectively, seem hemmed in by their heavy makeup; they lack the exuberant personalities of the original performers, Hinton Battle and Tiger Haynes. Dorothy's third traveling companion on the road to the Emerald City, the Lion with a heart of mush, looks imposing as played by the towering Gregg Baker, but he doesn't have the sense of fun that Ted Ross brought to the role nine years ago.
Things are somewhat better in the darker corners of Oz. Ella Mitchell may not be as amusingly witchy as Mabel King was as the original Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, but she has the girth and the evil glint. On the other hand, the good witches, Addaperle and Glinda, are played too campily by Juanita Fleming and Ann Duquesnay. The most satisfying performance is by Carl Hall, as the Wiz himself, a sharp dude in satiny white and green who brings a pitchman's presence to his big songs, "If You Believe" and "Y'all Got It!"
In general, though, Charlie Small's score has faded with time. Some of the songs especially "Ease on Down the Road" and "Slide Some Oil to Me" are still lively, but others are workman-like at best.
The aspects of The Wiz that have aged best are Geoffrey Holder's flamboyant costumes and his sometimes-playful staging, abetted by choreographer George Faison. The show has such colorful touches as a Yellow Brick Road played by four tall dancers, seductive poppy fields of costumed dancers and a tornado that sweeps into Kansas as a dancer with a funneling headdress. There's also some fun left in a few of the lines in William F. Brown's book (based, like the 1939 movie, on the 1900 Frank Baum children's story, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz).
The better elements, though, don't make up for the lack of real spirit beneath the cast's energy. Even the look of the production is cramped; Peter Wolfs sets with their flat, painted backdrops seem designed for traveling. But this latest Wiz is traveling a Yellow Brick Road that's more like a dead end than a path to wonderment.