Ashanti and James Monroe Iglehart in The Wiz.
BOTTOM LINE: Alvin Ailey meets Disney on Broadway meets the sale rack at JC Penney.
The Wiz is an urban musical version of The Wizard of Oz with an all-black cast that originally opened on Broadway in 1975. The production did well in the '70s, playing for four years and spawning a movie version starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow. It was revived on Broadway in 1984 and received a less stellar response...it closed after only two weeks. And here-in lies the problem with The Wiz: you better have an incredible production because in the end, it's just not a very good show.
This new version, playing through July 5th at City Center, is a part of the Encores series with the potential for a future Broadway run. Encores employs high caliber casts and creative teams to produce musical revivals. With somewhat minimal sets and a limited three week run, the point is to put a staged but unfinished version of the show up in front of an audience and to see the response and potential future for the production. For example, the 2007 Broadway production of Gypsy with Patti LuPone started at Encores and then played a spectacularly successful run on Broadway. I'm not sure The Wiz will make the transfer, but I'd love to see this cast together again. For all the ways the production misses the boat there are some truly wonderful moments as well.
The Wiz utilizes the In the Heights team (Thomas Kail directed, Andy Blankenbuehler choreographed, and Alex Lacamoire is musical director). This is a solid decision since both musicals are happy and hopeful with an urban vibe; they also both focus on the idea of what it means to be home. To their credit, Kail, Blankenbueher and Lacamoire do a great job with the material. They have a tremendous cast and orchestra, so performance-wise the show really cooks. The weakest link is Grammy winning pop star Ashanti, as Dorothy. This is her stage debut and it's pretty apparent that she's not an actress. But she has a lovely voice and the kids in the audience were going crazy (I guess anything that gets kids to the theatre can't be all bad). Luckily, Ashanti is surrounded by a fantastically talented cast including Tony winner LaChanze at Aunt Em (The Color Purple), Orlando Jones as the Wiz, and a whole slew of other singers and dancers that round out a stellar ensemble.
The story itself is very presentational and formulaic so each scene introduces a new character who gets a fun solo to sing. In a lot of ways, it's like watching bad-show-tune night on American Idol (if such a night existed). With the exception of 'Ease on Down the Road,' the rest of the music is pretty forgettable, even with a talented cast singing their respective faces off. Two songs that don't suck are the wicked witch's gospel-esque diva number called 'No Bad News' and the gorgeous ensemble song 'Everybody Rejoice' which was actually written by Luther Vandoss.
Blankenbuehler's choreography is creative and the dancers certainly perform it with grace and athleticism. As a dance show, The Wiz impresses. The staging is tough with Encores though, because the orchestra is showcased on stage (which, don't get me wrong, is incredibly cool and well-deserved). The result is that the cast of 30 is forced to maneuver around a large, winding staircase and platform. I'm not sure if this is part of the reason the pacing of the show is off or if it is the fault of book and the score, but the scene changes are often disjointed.
It's not that this production of The Wiz is bad. It's entertaining, energetic and brimming with talent. For what it's worth, it's a great kids show as well. It just lacks the wow moments needed to revive an insipid musical and make it new again. But it's worth seeing while it's playing this summer, especially if you have a personal connection to the musical or the movie.
(The Wiz plays through July 5th at City Center, 130 West 56th Street. Tickets are $25-$110. For the performance schedule and to purchase tickets visit nycitycenter.org/tickets.)