Talented youths shine in `Wiz' performance

June 24, 1999|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Summer has barely begun, and we've already enjoyed three productions exhibiting some extraordinary young talent.

In mid-May, Second Stage Playhouse presented 50 talented youngsters in "The Wizard of Oz." A week later, Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre opened its season with a largely high-school-age cast in "West Side Story," the best show I've seen at ASGT. This month, we welcome Talent Machine Company's "The Wiz,'" with a 60-member cast of 4- to 18-year-olds offering a great show.

"The Wiz" is an excellent vehicle for these young players, displaying their energy, acting, singing and dancing, and the professional expertise of the director, choreographer, music director, staging and lighting crew, costume designer and sound technicians.

The show is brimming with idealism and ablaze with special effects. "The Wiz" is a 1975 Motown-style version of "The Wizard of Oz" with the same cast of characters -- Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion -- searching respectively for home in Kansas, a brain, a heart and courage, with the action remaining in Kansas and Oz.

The Charlie Smalls score contains some memorable tunes including the moving ballads "The Feeling We Once Had" and "Believe in Yourself," the disco-inspired "Emerald City Ballet" and the infectious "Ease on Down the Road."

The message of "The Wiz" is that we should believe in ourselves. From the opening moment, when spotlights search the theater as the cast runs onstage, the show pulsates with so much youthful energy the audience cannot help but be caught up.

When all 60 members of the cast are on stage, the show is at its energetic best. This display of professionalism by dancers so young had to require intense effort and long hours of rehearsal.

Although founder Bobbi Smith believes that every child is a star, some youngsters are so outstanding that they should be mentioned. As Dorothy, 18-year-old Irene Cooper makes an exciting TMC debut, with her heartfelt singing and classy dance moves. As Scarecrow, 17-year-old Jake Thornhill has impressive acrobatic skills, so loose-jointed that he seems not constrained by human limitations. Only 13, Darren Biggart is a stylish Tin Man, tap dancing with precision. Seventeen-year-old Daniel Sonntag, whose talents include fine singing and dancing and impressive acting skills, plays the Lion.

Sonntag's charm makes his Cowardly Lion so lovable that he could probably do some fund raising for TMC by allowing children in the audience to pet him. Fourteen-year-old Brae Keller danced up a storm in the remarkable Tornado Ballet. And 14-year-old Detta Flippo was vocally outstanding as Aunt Em singing "The Feeling We Once Had," and even more so as Glinda singing "A Rested Body is a Rested Mind" and "Believe in Yourself."

In the role of the Wiz, 18-year-old tenor James Flanagan sings "Believe in Yourself" and "Y'all Got It." He is a terrific singer and dancer, and he delivers lines smoothly.

Director and choreographer Vicki Smith has done a superb job, along with her sister and Talent Machine founder Smith, who co-directs and serves as artistic consultant.

Valerie Cooper is music director. Susan Krepps and David Rector are producers. Technical director Tom Crouse once again proves he has few peers as a sound mixer. Stage managers Jerry Scott and Ron Weston deserve kudos, as does costume mistress Linda Scott.

Contributions of the volunteers, mostly parents, are noteworthy. At the Father's Day performance, I was impressed by the dedication of Alan Kidd, who traveled to Annapolis from Laurel to see the show for the fifth time. Another special father is Jerry Scott, who spent Father's Day inside a dark set to make the show sparkle more brightly.

"The Wiz" continues weekends through July 3. Call 410-056-0512 for reservations.

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