This is a whiz of a Wiz
New York Daily News (May 25, 1984) The Wiz is back in town, opening last night at the Lunt-Fontanne, too late to win another Tony, but in time to give the tag end of a generally lackluster Broadway musical season a bit of a lift, even though it looks a bit road weary.
The Dorothy, Stephanie Mills, is back, too, nine years older than when she created the role at 16 in this jive-happy version of the L. Frank Baum classic, but not an inch taller or wider, as luck would have it. Returning, also, are a few members of the earlier company, though not, regrettably, the distinctive portrayers of the Lion, Scarecrow and Tinman. But Carl Hall, who took over the title part while the 1975 production was still on Broadway, is truly "a whiz of a Wiz if ever a whiz there was," to borrow the Yip Harburg lyric from the Judy Garland movie evergreen. A compact bundle of energy, Hall gives off appropriate sparks as the fraudulent head of the Emerald City.
I really shortchanged Charlie Smalls' versatile and very fitting score when I first reviewed the show, and that was almost certainly because his lyrics, though functional, are rarely a match for his music.
The new scenery seems somewhat skimpier than Tom H. John's original designs, evidently to suit the needs of a revival that has been touring since last fall. But it's sufficiently eye-catching and in keeping with Geoffrey Holder's huge wardrobe of extravagant and colorful costumes. The lighting is fittingly garish, as well.
Besides the little Dorothy with the big and flexible voice (though with the familiar tinkering by the sound man at the console controls, it's difficult to determine much about either the size or true texture of any of the voices), the girl who induces her companions to "Ease on Down the Road," in the show's original hit number, there are a few other striking solos. Hall's next-to-closing "If You Believe," a song Lena Home practically made her own, is a showstopper, and so is Ella Mitchell's gospel delivery of "No Bad News" in this Wicked Witch of the West's amusing scene. Ann Duquesnay's reprise of "If You Believe," following her slinky account of "A Rested Body in a Rested Mind" as the Good Witch of the South, is another high point, but this performer will never erase the memory of the enchanting Dee Dee Bridgewater in one playgoer's mind.
The Wiz is long, too long. Patchy as William F. Brown's book is, there's too much of it, just as I'm afraid that George Faison's dance numbers, inventive as they are, are overextended. Costume designer Holder, by the way, is also responsible for the broad, entirelyapt, direction of the book.
And Harold Wheeler's orchestrations of Smalls' tunes are again one of the musical's greatest assets.
The Wiz earns enough high marks to make it worth a visit, especially with the kids, though the last time I said this, the show in question, Oliver, quit abruptly.