19 years later, 'Wiz' still stirs up a storm

February 25, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Images of flight show up at the beginning (a tornado) and end (a hot-air balloon) of the musical, "The Wiz." So it seems especially appropriate to discover nearly two decades after its world premiere in Baltimore, the show is still as uplifting as ever.

Furthermore, nearly all of the performances soar in the production playing a one-week run at the Lyric Opera House. Stephanie Mills may be a little long in the tooth for teen-age Dorothy, the role she created when she was herself a teen-ager. But -- amusing though it is to hear Aunt Em tell her, "You're getting to be a big girl now" -- this petite performer with the giant voice can still convey the spunky, bright-eyed attitude of an ingenue.

And, in the title role, time only seems to have enhanced the outrageous portrayal of Baltimore's own Andre De Shields, also reprising his original role. Flamboyance remains the character's trademark; in his number, "Y'all Got It!" De Shields' bell-bottom, jumpsuited Wiz dons David Bowie-style glasses, wows the Oz crowd with a hint of a Sammy Davis Jr. impersonation and then segues into a revivalist sermon. But earlier, when he's taken by surprise by Dorothy, the Tinman, Scarecrow and Lion, this Wiz is not only world-weary, he also seems older and wiser.

Limited scenery is the major shortcoming of this touring production, but George Faison's Tony Award-winning choreography, performed by a troupe of accomplished dancers, compensates by filling the stage with charged, inventive action. Though Faison is also credited as director, some of the staging seems to owe a debt to the original director, Geoffrey Holder; whatever the source, in this age of high-tech musicals, it's refreshing to return to the

simple majesty of such stunning Japanese-inspired effects as a tornado represented by dancers swirling long black streamers, or a yellow brick road suggested by four yellow-clad dancers wielding large yellow sticks, martial arts-style.

There appear to be a few updated references. In a tongue-in-cheek salute to Michael Jackson's role in the failed 1978 movie version, Garry Q. Lewis' loose-limbed Scarecrow does a bit of the Moonwalk; as the Tinman, when the multitalented Eugene Fleming breaks into a gleeful dance after being oiled, he engages not only in tap, but also in a little break dancing; and the Winged Monkeys' big number seems to have gained a new rap flavor.

More importantly, even though nothing becomes dated faster than what was hip yesterday, "The Wiz" continues to charm. This is attributable in part to the slick cast and to such catchy songs as "Ease On Down The Road" and "No Bad News," but it's also due to that underlying uplifting theme, summarized in the anthem, "Believe in Yourself."

4( Finally, it's good timing to be able

JTC to see "The Wiz" during Black History Month since this African-American retelling of the L. Frank Baum story -- with a score by Charlie Smalls and a book by William F. Brown -- is often credited with changing the history of the so-called Great White Way for black artists.

At the same time, it shouldn't be forgotten that during its 1974 tryout in Baltimore, "The Wiz" was in so much trouble, it looked as if it might be a lead balloon. Nineteen years later, it's become a classic, but fear not, the dust never settles on this production. On the contrary, it kicks up a storm.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "The Wiz"

Where: Lyric Opera House.

When: 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday; 3 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday.

Tickets: $19.50-$29.50.

& Call: (410) 889-3911.

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