Touring Revival (1997)


Wiz is transformed into a rock spectacle

Douglas J. Keating
Philadelphia Inquirer (May 1, 2023) Electric Factory Concerts plans to occasionally turn over its Tower Theater rock venue to theatrical productions, but it can't be said that the first presentation is much of a departure from the Tower's usual fare.

With heavily amplified voices and largely electronic music reverberating in the vast expanses of the 3,000-seat theater; actors wearing visible headset microphones and performing on a tilted, turning platform; and colored spotlights shining from lighting towers through clouds of stage smoke, this is very much The Wiz-as-rock-concert.

Whatever it is, people seem to want to see it. Tuesday's opening performance was almost sold out, and advance ticket sales were so strong that an Electric Factory spokesman said the show might be brought back soon.

Amid all the glitz, glitter and pumped-up sound, the book of this black version of The Wizard of Oz is neglected, regarded as something to carry the performers to the next song or dance number. Although that renders the production a poor one of The Wiz the musical, The Wiz-as-rock-concert can be entertaining. The singing is generally excellent; the dancing, though cramped (for all the vastness of the ball, the Tower's stage is surprisingly small), can be enjoyably energetic; and the flash and color of the physical setting are undeniably attractive.

The Wiz comes to town loaded with five billed entertainers Grace Jones, Peabo Bryson, CeCe Peniston, Tony Terry and Tasha Scott.

Jones is a hoot. Playing the wicked witch Evileen, she appears in only one scene, but more than makes the most of it. Wearing a skimpy costume and incredibly high heels to emphasize her impossibly long legs, the tall, imposing Jones exudes sensuality as she vamps and camps with gleeful abandon.

As the Wiz, Bryson in the later scenes has to spend a lot of time sermonizing to Dorothy and her pals as part of the left-by-the-side-of-the-Yellow-Brick-Road book plods to a conclusion. He's good enough in the role, but what the audience wants Bryson to do is sing, and when he does, though the songs may not be all that suitable to his soulful approach, he doesn't disappoint.

Terry's high falsetto in the role of Tin Man was a real crowdpleaser, and Peniston sang strongly as the good witch Glinda. Scott, a young entertainer known for her television appearances, played Dorothy,

She does not have a particularly outstanding voice and even though the musical's book seems deliberately deemphasized, it would certainly have more oomph if this Dorothy weren't so dull and spunkless.

Not billed but impressive as both singers and colorful performers are Gerald Atkins as Lion and Kameko Hebron as Scarecrow. Romelda Benjamin has a small role, as Aunt Em, but her full, rich gospel voice in the first number gets the show off to a good start.

The Wiz at the Tower is the only theatrical presentation I've ever attended where I didn't get a free program as I entered the theater. If you want to know about the show and the performers, you'll have to purchase a large-format but hardly elaborate souvenir program for $7 ñ and don't wait for intermission to, do it or you'll have a tough time getting through the crowd around the one guy selling copies in the lobby.