Broadway Touring Revival (1984)


Wiz fizzles early on down the road

Robert FeIdberg
The Record (May 25, 2023) A revival of "The Wiz," which ran on Broadway for 1,672 performances in the mid-Seventies, overdid the title of the musical's hit song. It didn't ease on into the LuntFontanne Theater last night ñ it sleepwalked.

Maybe the nine months this production has been touring the country have drained some of its pizazz. Or maybe there wasn't much to begin with. Whatever the reason, the lengthy first act of this funky version of L Frank Baum's classic children's book "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" is terribly lethargic.

The meetings of Dorothy (Stephanie. Mills) and the Scarecrow (Charles Valentino), the Tinman (Howard Porter), and the cowardly Lion (Gregg Baker) are drawn out and dully staged, and the songs that celebrate them are, with a couple of exceptions "Ease On Down the Road" and the Scarecrow's rousing "I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday" extremely banal.

Surprisingly little is done with the show's concept the filtering of Baum's story through the black experience. Charlie Smalls's songs are often standard-issue Broadway white bread, particularly the saccharine inspirational ballads. William F. Brown's book has some good lines, but too often depends on famliar catch phrases to establish an urban racial connection. The show, throughout, Is earthbound; It never soars with the magic of the Judy Garland film.

It isn't until the beginning of the second act that "The Wiz" gets a badly needed injection of soul, when Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (Ella Mitchell) delivers a rousing rhythm and blues message with "No Bad News." The moment is matched a few minutes later with "Everybody Rejoice," which was written by pop singer Luther Vandross. And finally, good witch Glinda (Ann Duquesnay) gets in her soulful licks with "A Rested Body is a Rested Mind."

George Falson's choreography is ordinary, and the direction by Geoffrey Holder, who also staged the original production, rises only to the adequate. Holder does much better with the costumes he designed; they're bright and witty.

The actress-singers who portray the witches, including Juanita Fleming, playing good witch Addaperle, are the cast members who stand out. Most of the others are perfectly all right, but unremarkable.

Diminutive Stephanie Mills, repeating her original role as Dorothy, has a big, warm voice, but is a rather flat actress. You could say that she fades into the scenery, except that for much of the first act, there isn't any, just changing patterns of light on a rear curtain to suggest different locations.

Touring shows, of necessity, must have sets which are easy to transport and set up. But this scenic idea by Peter Wolf seems excessively minimal for Broadway. He does quite a bit better with more traditional sets for the Emerald City and the Wiz's throne room (although revealing an excessive faith in the magical powers of stage fog).

There were many children at the performance I attended, and they seemed quite taken with the show's color and movement and fantastical characters. But for adults, I'm afraid, most of the show is nowhere near the rainbow.