Oz With Soul

by Jack Kroll

American blacks have been moving down a yellow brick. road (badly in need of repair) for a long time, looking for Oz or the Emerald City or some other dream deterred, so the idea of an all-black version of The Wizard of Oz makes perfect sense. And happily The Wiz is more than that; it's also perfect nonsense and one of the most cyclonic blasts of high energy to hit Broadway in a long time. Only wicked witch or a pooped-out drama critic could remain unmoved by The Wiz blazing high spirits, its piping hot servings of soul and its sly sagacity about the pleasures and perils of fantasy.

Unlike most recent bigtime musicals, which carefully parcel out their meager rations of pleasure, The Wiz is show that doesn't quit, for which director Geoffrey Holder deserves great credit. The rhythm-and-blues score by Charlie Smalls (who also wrote the lyrics) has drive, wit and theatricality. Tom H. John's settings also have real wit: his Emerald City is a kind of utopian cocktail lounge, a cool green art-nouveau grotto studded with green-glowing stones, like traffic lights telling fantasy to Go! Holder has also designed sensational costumes: the tornado that whirls Dorothy from her Kansas home to Munchkin Land is whipped up black-clad dancers led by a tall Torando Queen whose plumed headdress gradually wraps the stage in an infinity of twisting wind. This and all of choreographer George Faison's dances are exciting, funny and jumping with character.

William F. Brown's book absorbs L. Frank Baum's classic into the black experience with good-humored cleverness. Some will say The Wiz exploits that experience with its flip references to drugs, sex and suchmatters, but in our culture of interlocking exploitations how refreshing to see it done with warmth and flair. When the Good Witch informs Dorothy, "I have a magic act, I do tricks," the funky Munchkins comment, "Does she ever!" At one point Faison's dancers become a field of poppies who turn on the Cowardly Lion with a blast of poppy dust. When the Mice Squad comes on to scatter these horticultural pushers, the crestfallen lion comments: "How come you never find a mouse when you need one?"

Parade: The biggest fun of The Wiz is encountering its parade of delightful characters. Clarice Taylor is beautifully tacky as the trick-doing witch. As the Scarecrow, 18-year-old Hinton Battle never stops dancing in his search for brains. The Tinman is played by Tiger Haynes in a pointedly trashy armor of garbage can torso, beercan legs and skillet hat. Ted Ross struts and cringes with equally high style as the Cowardly Lion.

The Wiz himself is played by Andre De Shields as the apotheosis of all ghetto cult artists, a shyster preacher, pimp and politician whose crowning satiric nuance is a touch of the epicene ("Where did you get such a marvelous pair of silver pumps?" he gushes to Dorothy). As the Wicked Witch, Mabel King shouts a hilarious gospel of evil. The majestically beautiful Dee Dee Bridgewatcr counters this with her pure jazz singing as the Good Witch Glinda. Bigvoiced 15-year-old Stephanie Mills is a down-home Dorothy. If talent, hard work and trite energy mean anything, The Wiz will find a big audience of all ages and colors.

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