Original Broadway Production (1975)


Press

The Wiz (of Oz)

Black Musical Shows Vitality and Style

Clive Barnes
New York Times (January 6, 1975) Criticism is not objective. This does not mean that a critic cannot see qualities in a work that does not evoke much personal response in himself. A case in point is "The Wiz," a black musical that opened last night at the Majestic Theater. It has obvious vitality and a very evident and gorgeous sense of style. I found myself unmoved for too much of the evening, but I was respectfully unmoved, not insultingly unmoved. There is a high and mighty difference.

L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" has been a standard children's story almost since its first publication in 1900. A year later Baum himself made a theatrical adaptation of the piece, and there have been other stage versions. But it was in Victor Fleming's 1939 movie, starring Judy Garland as the little Kansas girl whisked away on a cyclone along the yellow brick road to the Land of Oz, that the story received what. was really its definitive treatment.

The idea of the present staging appears to have been that of the producer, Ken Harper, and one can easily see his line of thought. With a musical mixture of rock, gospel and soul music, written by Charlie Smalls, who provided both score and lyrics, "The Wiz" is intended as a new kind of fantasy, colorful, mysterious, opulent and fanciful. It was also obviously meant to be a fantasy for today ñ very modern, a dream dreamed by a spaceage child.

The concept is very good in theory, but the practice is not made perfect. Mr. Smalls's music ñ vastly overamplified by the way ñ sounded all too insistent and oddly familiar. It had plenty of verve but it lacked individuality.

It is the overall style of "The Wiz" that gives it its overriding impact. It has all been very carefully conceived and shaped. Not only is Mr. Smalls's music all of a piece but the visual aspect of the productionwith handsomely stylized settings by Tom H. John and vibrantly colored and wackily imaginative costumes by Geoffrey Holder offers a fresh and startling profile. This is first-rate and highly innovative.

Unfortunately, with the blaring, relentless rhythms of Mr. Smalls's music and the visually arresting but rather tiring scenic spectacle, the total result is a little cold. This is not helped by a somewhat charmless book by William F. Brown.

It is eventually the story, or more correctly the treatment of the story, that I found tiresome. A fairy tale, to work, has to have magic. We have to give ourselves up to it, to suspend our cynical disbeliefs and, to some extent, identify with the characters. To me, this proved impossible in "The Wiz." The little girl in the film played by Miss Garland was an utterly real person. The Dorothy in "The Wiz" never for a moment has those dimensions. And the Scarecrow, the Tinman and the Lion (who, in memory, must always be Bert Lahr), while fantastic, are rarely amusing.

None of this was the fault of the performers. Stephanie Mills, however, who plays Dorothy, while having a really wonderful voice, unusually mature for a 15-year-old, did not have a very persuasive personality. The singing throughout was first-class, particularly from Mabel King and Dee Dee Bridgewater, who both have big and beautiful voices.

The rest of the cast is admirable, including Tiger Haynes, Ted Ross and the gracefully loose-limbed Hinton Battle as the comic trio helping Dorothy on her way to the Emerald City, and Andre de Shields as the sardonic Wiz. Nor can fault be found with the staging. Mr. Holder (who took the assignment while the show was on the road) has directed "The Wiz" with a characteristic feel for movement, and the vibrant choreography by George Faison (here making his Broadway debut) is almost invisibly meshed in with the general staging.

When so much is individually good it is difficulty to justify a personal sense of disappointment. Perhaps it is, at least for me, that fantasy is enthralling only when it is rooted in experience. Also the stylistic unity of the show, which may prove very exciting to many Broadway theatergoers is, of course, familiar to me from years of going to the ballet and the opera, so its originality is diluted. There are many things to enjoy "The Wiz," but, with apologies, this critic noticed them without actually enjoying them.