The Wiz Misses

by Clive Barnes
New York Times (January 12, 2024)

The unfailingly appealing Clarice Taylor plays one of the two trustworthy witches in the all-black version of The Wizard of Oz (the third remains wicked and must be melted down as always) and it is she who gives Dorothy the pair of silver slippers that will see her safely. through anything provided she never, never parts with them. Once Dorothy has gone through virtually everything ñ including an assault by flying monkeys and a timely rescue by the Mice Squad ñ she wants to know just what it was about those slippers that made them so helpful. Witch Taylor compresses her, rubbery face into a mashed-up grin and gives her an honest answer, "Oh, I could have told you the secret of the slippers right off," she cackles, "but it just didn't seem good theater." A candid creature, Miss Taylor, and sassy about the kind of work she's employed in.

I wish that everyone else connected with The Wiz, which is what Frank Baum's elderly fairy-tale is now called at the Majestic, had taken equal time to consider what, constitutes good theater. It's not just a matter of working in, now and again, some remarkable octave-jumps in the songs, some dynamic full-stage dancing. The Wiz has both of these, though as often as not it seems spur-of-the-moment stuff. What good theater's got to do, if it's going to arrive safe and smiling at 10 o'clock, is make up its mind what it is, and then stick with the heads-or-tails choice. Are we all for innocence tonight, with Toto the dog leaping into Dorothy's loving arms on command and the rusty Tin Man showing his deep gratitude for being properly oiled by easing into a lightly rhythmic tap? Or do we know better than that, pockets loaded with Jokes meant to make the whole thing mod?

There was a time, fairly early in the first half, when I thought The Wiz had made up its mind, simply and attractively. We'd already come through the billowing curtains and flapping shutters of our Kansas cyclone, had watched the Munchkins career through like tumblebugs, had approved the Scarecrow's efforts to prop himself up on straw ankles. Routine, perhaps, but getting us under way. Then, as Dorothy and her companions made of straw, tin and mangy cowardice began to look for the gold-paved road to Oz, a nice thing happened. No elaborate shifting of scenery, no literal path snaklng from footlights into the far distance. Instead, four men with gleaming staves simply turned in from the wings, their yellow jackets unmistakably checked with pavingblocks. We were going for suggestion, discretion, a happy reticence, for a visual ingenuity ñ the costumes are Geoffrey Holder's ñ that would get us, rather sweetly, from here to there straight.

Certainly the show keeps its innocence where the plotline is concerned. The original is pursued to a fare-thee-well, running into trouble only when it creeps carelessly close, in a situation or a song intro, to memories of Harold Arlen's film score that we just can't get rid of. If Dorothy sits down to daydream of "a place where we all go that is mostly quiet," there is nothing we can do to drive that Rainbow out of our. heads; better to have ducked the dream. And since the Scarecrow does need a brain, and chooses to sing about it, how are we to avoid mixing his tune up with Ray Bolger's? To the new tune's disadvantage, it must be said.

Nonetheless, the narrative clings to its naivetÈ, staking a claim on charm. The libretto ñ by William F. Brown ñ does nothing of the sort. It opts for smart, pallidly. "You've got a yellow streak a mile wide," the Cowardly. Lion is told. "It is not!", the beast retorts, "It's my mane and I just had it touched up" The Wicked Witch, enthroned beneath the portal-to-portal wingspread of a great horned owl, is so averse to water that she won't take a bath. "I send myself out to be drycleaned," she says. "All right!", she snaps after she has sent an unwelcome messenger to be hanged, "I'm through being Mr. Nice Guy." The contemporary overlay, alas, is feeble at every turn, whether the Scarecrow is failing to answer difficult questions because he never was good at "multiple choice" or the Wizard is insisting that he keeps "a low profile." The brokenbacked snappers succeed in knocking off the naivetÈ without providing a comic spine to replace it. The show wanders about In search of a dateline, not to mention a decent laugh.

That leaves us with: Charlie Smalls's numbers, a few of which are knockouts. Mabel King's Wicked Witch opens up a voice that could be used for warning ships at sea with a grand and gravelly blast called "No Bad News," then tops her personal triumph by greeting the applause with a blazing fury. Once this tyrant has been vanquished, trickling through the stage floor, there is a choral hallelujah, done in what seems a blizzard of blue and lavender streamers, that cheerfully threatens the roof of the building, as does Wizard Andre de Shields's incantatory "Y'all Got It." And Stephanie Mills brings her Dorothy home (the song is called "Home") with liquid, honestly throbbing, majesty.

Dee Dee Bridgewater is briefly but, persuasively sinuous as the other good witch, though of Dorothy's companionable trio only Ted Ross as the Lion makes much of the limited footwork given him. Small wonder that there should be a good bit of uncertainty about. Everything is done confidently, mind you; it just doesn't have firm ground beneath it to say where it's come from; Kansas, Harlem, MGM, or a kiddies' matinee. Somebody forgot to say "We'll do 'The Wizard' this way, this time."

Copyright © 2008. Jeremy Aufderheide. All Rights Reserved. E-mail