Eric B. Anthony, Kristen N. Dowtin, Mel Johnson, Jr., and Wayne… (Richard Anderson )
Except, perhaps, for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," some of us could get along very nicely without any reminders of the '70s — all that bad hair, all those frenetically patterned clothes. OK, maybe a little of the music wasn't so bad. Oh yeah, and a few of the musicals, at least those by Sondheim.
But is there really any reason to revisit "The Wiz"? Isn't that 1975 work just an awkward and severely dated product of its time? Doesn't it suggest the theatrical flipside of a blaxploitation film? And, speaking of film, didn't "The Wiz" generate a stupefying, impossibly dreary movie musical? That's got to count against it, too, right?
Not so fast. It's a durable little show, after all, as a determinedly upbeat revival from Center Stage reaffirms. Whatever it lacks in subtlety or subtext, this new production wisely takes "The Wiz" largely as it is — or was, when it opened on Broadway 35 years ago. No pretentious updating, context-twisting or forced psychoanalyzing.
What William F. Brown (book) and Charlie Smalls (music and lyrics) created was a respectful reimagining of L. Frank Baum's beloved "The Wonderful World of Oz" from an African-American perspective.
In a day when an all-black cast on the Great White Way was unusual, "The Wiz" provided a worthy vehicle for performers of color and the delivery of good old-fashioned messages about self-discovery and self-worth, home and community. As the Wiz says, "How little we know of ourselves."
The musical has its shortcomings. The opening Kansas sequence is so truncated that Dorothy, kindly Aunt Em and Uncle Henry hardly register before the scene shifts to that weird realm somewhere over the rainbow. In such plot details, the venerable 1939 film adaptation outshines this or other adaptations, of course.
But precisely because that film is so embedded in our consciousness, "The Wiz" can jettison or conflate various elements; we just subconsciously fill in whatever's missing, based on what we know. (Or think we know. Some folks might find Dorothy's silver slippers disconcerting, but that comes from Baum. To take advantage of then-novel Technicolor, the shoes got their more screen-popping, iconic ruby red in '39.)
On the musical side, "The Wiz" has its drawbacks, too. It's no problem to remember the refrain of "Ease on Down the Road," but that's not quite the same as being memorable. And the big ballads don't always fulfill their potential melodically.
Still, there is enough cleverness and vitality in the music to get the job done. And, happily, the Center Stage treatment avoids embellishing things with pointless wails of the "American Idol" variety or overblown arrangements. In a telling note in the program book, music director/orchestrator Eric Svejcar describes the ever-so-'70s "Shaft"-ness of the original score and his determination to honor those stylistic roots.
Heading the cast is Kristen N. Dowtin, who makes an endearing Dorothy. More nuance would deepen the portrayal, but her unaffected style hits the mark. When she avoids pushing her voice, her unusually sweet timbre produces an eloquent effect.
Kingsley Leggs rises to the occasion (literally, in this staging) as the Wiz and handles the acting side of things in vivid style. He's also a robust singer, especially while perched on a "Jet Green" gangway, delivering the propulsive preacher parody "Y'All Got It."
Eric B. Anthony's Scarecrow offers abundant physical vitality, a good degree of charm and a somewhat grating hayseed accent. Mel Johnson Jr. makes an amiable, sympathetic Tin Man (he delivers the line "She put a spell on my ax" with perfect inflection), and he uses his modest vocal resources sensitively.
Wayne W. Pretlow knows that the Lion gets, well, the lion's share of theatrical opportunity and he takes full advantage of it. His fresh, funny performance gives the whole production a lift.
Same for Gwen Stewart. She owns the stage with her fabulously flavorful portrayals of Addaperle (a streetwise version of dotty Aunt Clara on "Bewitched") and the cheerily ruthless Evillene. Stewart's bag of facial tricks proves as potent as her singing voice, which nails "No Bad News" with a vengeance.
Angela Robinson is a tender Aunt Em in the opening; a vocally radiant Glinda in the finale (making her entrance a la Cleopatra). Among the spirited ensemble, Tym Byerz stands out as the prancing gatekeeper of Emerald City, which seems more like Camp City. (That metropolis has dicey outlying areas; the Tin Man is found in a Dumpster pushed by a wino.)
Toto is a minor presence, apparently because no dog with sufficient theatrical experience could be found. (Given how fanciful the whole show is, I wonder if a stuffed toy could have been used somehow, just for the fun of it.)
Willie Rosario's choreography isn't terribly inventive; the Tornado Ballet, in particular, has a tacky streak (frilly costumes, one of designer Candice Donnelly's few missteps, don't help). As for the dancing, it ranges from fluid to flabby. Victor Simonson dynamically leads a tightly matched combo of musicians from the keyboard.
Christopher Barreca's minimal scenic design, aided by Rui Rita's lighting, provides atmosphere and humor. And, although some spots could use tightening and others less repetitive blocking, Lewis keeps the action flowing with an effective sweep.
All the "jive turkey" and "little mama" stuff might sound a little quaint now, but "The Wiz" is not to be winced at. This production underlines how sturdily it holds up as an entertaining fantasy with a heart — and a good beat.
If you go
"The Wiz" runs through Nov. 7 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $10 to $60.