“The Wiz” is an iconic part of Black entertainment history, and revamping the show to meet audience expectations — post multiple Broadway runs and a star-studded film — isn’t an easy feat.
But with a few creative freedoms slightly different than the film and a few big casting names of their own, “The Wiz” on opening night in Charlotte delivered a show worth of applause.
About the show
Based on the 1974 Broadway musical of the same name — and adaptation of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” –, “The Wiz” is on a “pre-Broadway” American tour through early March.
In 1978, the show was adapted for the big screen and caused a few waves in its casting decisions– Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as Scarecrow and Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch, to name a few. Because Ross was well into adulthood at the time, Dorothy’s character as a teenager was morphed into Dorothy as a young adult for the movie.
Today, “The Wiz” as a musical is more closely aligned to the original Broadway show in its story and to the film in its music. Unlike the film, Dorothy is portrayed as a teenager who’s new to town in Oklahoma rather than a shy schoolteacher who lives in Harlem. And (spoiler ahead), unlike either predecessor, the character doesn’t have her signature tagalong dog, Toto, in the show.
The musical’s revival does, however, balance the classics with new selections by performing some songs as is — like “Home” and “Believe in Yourself” — and adding twists to others, like a revamped performance of “He’s the Wizard.”
Choosing a favorite
Choosing a favorite from “The Wiz” is really difficult for me. Like many people, I’ve seen “The Wiz” no less than 100 times. It’s one of my mother’s favorite movies, and we know every word to every song.
I can’t choose just one, but I can narrow it down to three.
Let’s start with Deborah Cox. Deborah Cox, as the good witch, is casting perfection. Like Lena Horne in the film, Cox’s presence is minimal but impactful. From her golden disco-like dress to her moving vocals, Cox personifies the role of Glinda as a powerful but radiant presence. And her mic was on.
My second favorite came as a surprise. I can be a bit of a purist when it comes to things I really love, and “He’s the Wizard” — performed by Ms. One and the munchkins in the film — is one of them. In the show, to my initial dismay, the number is performed quite differently, but I found myself enjoying it. The performance traded in that upbeat swing from the film for a more Jazz feel, and it worked.
Third, Phillip Johnson Richardson, as the Tinman, performed a soulful version of “What Would I Do If I Could Feel” and took the audience to church. Richardson, who is from Charlotte, brought the same emotion to the song that Nipsey Russell did in the film but sang more. His performance should make the city proud.
What surprised me
Two things surprised me during the show: the skill and fluidity of the understudies, and the emphasis on textured hair.
Just before the show began, the announcer shared with the audience that Dorothy would be played by Mariah Lyttle and Evillene / Aunt Em would be played by Allyson Kaye Daniel. Had I not been informed they were understudies, I would have assumed they played the roles each night as lead; their performances were seamless.
Another thing that really caught my attention was the emphasis on textured hair throughout the show. In addition to an all-Black cast, I noticed that in nearly every scene, every wig on stage featured curly, kinky, coily and afro-textured hairstyles. I realized it’s the first time I’ve seen a production highlight afro textures with such intentionality. It was beautiful.
What I didn’t like
This is a selfish dislike, I’ll admit it.
Spoiler ahead: “You’ve got to be seen in green…I wouldn’t be caught dead in red” line is not in the show. The “Emerald City Sequence” is reimagined and performed with new music. The performance is entertaining, and the dancers have a great routine, but I wish it would have opened with the iconic song from the film and then gone into their new version.
Drink of the night
The Emerald City was the themed drink of the evening. The sweet cocktail is made with tequila, Sprite, Midori and pineapple juice for that lime green glow.
“The Wiz” is a revival of a classic that is well worth seeing. It does a good job of calling back to the iconic film and bringing the story of the original Broadway show while still making space for its own flavor.
The voices, the dancers, the set and the story all culminate in a show that emphasizes Blackness in the most beautiful way. “The Wiz” is it.
If you go
- Location: Belk Theater
- Dates: Nov. 9 – Nov. 12
- Prices: $30
- Tickets: Purchase on the website. Tickets are limited.