Frank Baum wrote “The Wizard of Oz in 1900. The story of Dorothy Gale’s journey somewhere over the rainbow was converted to stage and film a decade of times before the 1939 iconic version of the MGM musical staring Judy Garland.
In 1974, “The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls and book by William F. Brown presented the retelling of Baum’s American fairytale in the style of African-American culture.
This is the version of “The Wiz,” which is currently playing at Tacoma Musical Playhouse — not to be mistaken with the film version of 1974 with Diana Ross, which takes place in New York City – this one more closely follows the original concept.
We’re still in Kansas, even if Toto has been temporarily displaced by the impending storm. Dorothy doesn’t make it to shelter in time to be safe from the tornado and gets swept into that mythical realm where all she wants to do is go home.
The young girl is greeted by the Munchkins who explain that the house in which she was transported to Oz had landed on Evvamene, the Wicked Witch of the East and killed her. Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North, appears to help Dorothy along her way with some not-quite-so-perfect magic but does manage to get the silver French Louis slippers off the dead witch and onto Dorothy with the admonition to never take them off.
When Dorothy tells the Good Witch she wants to go home Addaperle tells her to go to the Wiz; he can grant all desires
Dorothy embarks upon her journey to Oz by way of the yellow brick road. On her way, she meets the Scarecrow, who is being taunted by a murder of crows which she scares away, helps release the straw man from his pole and invites him to come with her so he can ask the Wiz for a brain.
Together they encounter a rusted Tinman who has no heart. Once the two get him lubricated, they invite him to accompany them to Oz and the three “Ease on Down the Road,” until they are confronted by a Lion looking for his lost courage, whom they all invite to join them.
Their travels take them through many adventures – meeting obstacles they must overcome to complete the journey to the Wiz. Most of these are caused by the sister of Dorothy’s victim, Evilene, the Wicked Witch of the West. Evilene is determined to get the magic slippers Dorothy possesses and goes to any length to get them
Our quartet of travelers finally makes it to Oz and is granted an audience with the Wiz who is represented by a giant talking head with all sorts of sound and light effects accompanying his appearance. The Wiz tells them he will grant their wishes if they bring him Evilene’s broomstick.
More adventures follow the four until they return to the Wiz who tells them there are responsible for their own destiny and may grant their wishes themselves – except for Dorothy whom he offers a ride home in the hot air balloon which had brought the Wiz to Oz many years before.
With the whole cast of Oz folk watching to bid farewell, The Wiz enters the balloon while Dorothy eagerly tries to make it to the gondola but can’t get through the crowd; the Wiz takes off without our heroine.
Glinda, The Good Witch of the South appears and informs the sad girl the secret meaning of the slippers given to Dorothy by her sister from the North and points how she may return to Kansas with no help from others, which she does and ends the show by singing “Home.”
Director/Co-Choreographer Jon Douglas Rake has given the audience a well-directed tale of wonder and adventure for people of all ages.
The choreography, with co-choreographer Jimmy Shields, is excellent. The two have created some unique numbers which move the story forward by dance.
Specifically, the telling of the tornado: Several ensemble members lividly demonstrate Dorothy being “pulled” back and forth by the wind as they dance around her dressed in gray flowing gossamer leotards with square “capes” draped about them which they manipulate like wings; one of the dancers even has a “CBS” Eye on the front of her costume, denoting that she is the center of the tornado.
The Munchkins are charming as they glide around the stage sitting on wheeled office chairs with ballooned skirts to cover their actual height.
Perhaps the best interpretation is the Yellow Brick Road. This is ingeniously handled by having four ensemble members dressed in yellow cut-away coats and leotards, holding seven-foot tall staffs upon which are painted yellow rectangles. The four form a box (two forward and two aft) in which the characters “ease on down.”
Technical Director and Set Designer Bruce Haasl gives the audience a truly movable, versatile set with Dorothy’s house which moves on stage and revolves to “fall” upon the witch; platforms with corn stalks for the Scarecrow; a wooded area for the Tin Man; and a forest for the Lion; gates to the Emerald City which swing wide to enter; the grand chamber for the giant, movable head for the Wiz and countless other venues to tell the whole story.
Jeffrey Stvrtecky does his inimitable job of music director while conducting the TMP Orchestra composed of Constance Shepherd and Emma Hefferman, violins; Christiaan Garcia, cello; Jenessa Stout, Shannon Bates, Judy Lantz and Diz Carroll, reeds; Mark Willis, French horn; Michael Leavens, John Stava and Rick Leffler, trumpet; Ashish Meloottu and Mick Crosby, trombone; Steve Kirk, electric guitar; Rusty Graeff, electric bass; Dean Story and Garrit Guadan, keyboard; and Iris McBride, percussion/drums. This is one of TMP’s larger orchestras, which does a wonder job of accompanying the singers.
Jocelyne Fowler is Costume Manager with assistants Shelley Kendall, Grace Stone and Margot Webb. All of the costumes are excellent and really make the story come alive.
John Chenault does a terrific lighting design, especially for The Wiz’s appearance. Kevin Gamble does sound. Caitlin Cowan is Stage Manager.
As is his wont, Rake has amassed a huge cast with an Ensemble of 22, which includes: Kenya Adams, Dashari Anderson, Tre’mar Baptiste, Christen Blackwell, Abigail Cole, Addison Daniels, Marissa Demartini, Keoni Dilay, Hannah Eleazer, Robert Gallagher, D’Najare Greenwood, Francesca Guecia, Emilie Hanson, Jill Heinecke, Lanita Hudson, Corey Joyner, Chiquita Levy, Donovan Mahannah, Sade Moffett, Ariona Thompson, Naa’rai Geovani Tilson and Chelsea Woods.
All are wonderful in their interpretation of their roles, whether they are Crows, Munchkins, Poppies or Flying Monkeys. It is always amazing to see how this many dancers can share a relatively small space and not get into each other’s way. Perhaps the one stand-out for dance, all around reactions and brief solo singing is Lanita Hudson.
Marion Read is Aunt Em. Read has a marvelous, clear voice, which is demonstrated only once when she sings the opening number “The Feeling We Once Had.” Read’s acting ability is equal to her singing. With the best voice in the production, Read sets the tone for the whole show
Russell Campbell plays Uncle Henry and The Gatekeeper to Oz. Campbell is a likeable Uncle and the gently irascible Gatekeeper.
Roshawn Johnson is delightful as Glinda, especially when she tells Dorothy in a reprise of the song to “Believe in Yourself.”
Sheila Blackwell is Addaperle. The boisterous singer comes off like a cross between Aretha Franklin and Bewitiched’s Aunt Clara. Blackwell has a good voice and has developed an equally good character when she and the munchkins join in “He’s The Wiz.”
Jamelia Payne is a force to be reckoned with as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. Her character is so overbearing she certainly has some of the audience shaking in their boots. Payne makes her character as evil as her name implies singing “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.”
Duwayne Andrews is impressive as The Wiz, especially when he sings with might “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard.” He is equally gentle when found out and tells Dorothy, along with her three friends to “Believe in Yourself.”
Matthew Dela Cruz is demanding as the Lion, when he first appears on stage in front of his soon-to-be new friends. However, when Dorothy calls him out for scaring them all, Dela Cruz charmingly shows his true cowardly colors.
Jimmy Shields, who is also Co-Choreographer, is terrific as the Tinman. When he tells Dorothy and Scarecrow to “Slide Some Oil to Me,” Shields proves his multi dancing ability by breaking into a neat soft shoe routine.
Charles Simmons is delightful as the floppy Scarecrow. Simmons antics when released from his pole parodies a burlap bag from which the potatoes have been emptied. Simmons pours himself about the stage as he tells Dorothy “I was Born on the Day Before Yesterday.”
Alexandria Henderson is plaintive Dorothy. Henderson is beguiling as the young girl who acts, dances and sings her way from Kansas to Oz and back with cunning determination. Henderson is fittingly amazed at her surrounds and how she got there. Her singing ability is obvious when she wistfully sings “Soon as I Get Home” and uplifting when she joins her friends in “Believe in Yourself.”
“The Wiz” continues at Tacoma Musical Playhouse at 7116 Sixth Avenue, just east of Jackson, through June 12, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.; there are two additional matinees Saturday June 4 and 11 also at 2 p.m.
For reservations or more information, call the box office at (253) 565-6867 or go online to www.tmp.org.
This musical trip to the light fantastic down that yellow road is a solid production with wonderful timing, acting, dancing and singing.
The TMP cast and crew have all put their hearts, brains and courage into the show to give the audience an enjoyable experience for the whole family. Make the trip – you won’t regret it.