Be Careful What You Wish For
“The Wiz,” with book by William F. Brown and predominant music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls, is the ultimate crowd pleaser – a familiar and spirit lifting morality tale with anthropomorphized characters, brilliant costumes, bouncy music and dance. It plays for 16 weeks at OSF’s big house, the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre, and it is sure to be a big draw.
Brown’s book maps well onto L. Frank Baum’s original “Wizard of Oz.” For the rare among you who aren’t familiar, Dorothy and her home are lifted by a tornado to Oz, where the house lands on and kills an evil witch. In her search to return to Kansas, she befriends three locals, each of whom have some deficiency they would like corrected. The four seek the Wizard, whom they are told will solve all of their problems. Of course, all is not as advertised, and ultimately, Dorothy must deal with a moral dilemma in the hope of earning her return ticket. But having passed the test, she, like her companions, will be forever transformed, and her brief foray into the magical land of Oz will be but a memory.
Updated and urbanized, “The Wiz” offers more contemporary interpretations of matters such as the soporific opium fields and more sassier style of humor. Charlie Small’s score is diverse, drawing both on Broadway and Motown, with special borrowing from Isaac Hayes instrumental intros. Musical highlights include the ubiquitous “Ease on Down the Road” and the also catchy “Everybody Rejoice (A Brand New Day),” written by Luther Vandross.
Intended for an all black cast, the show is full of big voices with outsized personalities, led by Ashley D. Kelley (through August 13). Unlike the Dorothys we know from the movies, Judy Garland and Diana Ross, Kelley is a naturally bouncy, bubbly presence who holds the stage well against a bevy of over-the-top companions on the road to the Emerald City and back to Kansas. Scarecrow J. Cameron Barnett and Tinman Rodney Gardiner score well with strong voices and well-delivered humor, but the personality of Christiana Clark as the lithe, but cowardly lion(ess) comes through with particular flair.
Staging relies largely on the in-situ Elizabethan facade as a generic backdrop, with its many egresses, balconies, and stairs. Light projections add to the effect. However, the real visual power comes from the dazzling movement on the stage. Of course, this show is a costume designer’s delight and challenge, with an array of individual and group costumes, from witches to crows to blown-up bubble men. Dede M. Ayite finds all the right solutions. Byron Easley provides a multitude of nicely choreographed pieces to add to the look and feel.
“The Wiz” plays at Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Allen Elizabethan Theatre, Ashland, OR, through October 15. OSF is a premier theater company, founded in 1935. Operating three theaters totaling over 2,100 seats, overall attendance in 2015 exceeded 390,000, representing 87% of capacity. Among its awards, OSF has received the coveted Tony in 1983 for outstanding achievement in regional theater and in 2014 for best play for its commission “All the Way.”