By SUZI STEFFEN
ASHLAND – So The Wiz isn’t the best musical of all time. The plot makes about as much sense as it does in L. Frank Baum’s book or the Judy Garland movie; some of the songs are less than great; and there’s a creaky, predictable awkwardness to the Big Message that growing up includes believing in yourself.
But who cares? The audience know (or could know, depending on the movie and/or live broadcast they’ve watched) exactly what they’re going to get from The Wiz: First and foremost, the experience of seeing good and great African American actors/singers/dancers sinking their full skills into the songs, joyously taking that stage and owning it, making a place designed for Shakespeare into a fully realized world of the Emerald City.
Theater has a space for fun, high fashion, and a sheer high level of skilled performance that doesn’t have to end with blood and tears. That’s this show, this year, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In the season, it’s surrounded on the big open-air Elizabethan Stage by Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale, neither of which is a fun evening to which you’d take kids.
But The Wiz? Heck yeah. Take the kids (yours or someone else’s, as long as they’re at least 6 years old and you’re prepared to help them deal with the scary scenes and the bathroom lines). Dress up if you want to, but know that no matter how shiny you look, this cast will outshine anyone with, to quote the Point Sisters from the OSF’s Yeomen of the Guard, its sangin’, dancin’ and twinklin’.
For adult satisfaction, one major point of The Wiz is the costumes. The OSF costume shop is quite large, one of the largest departments outside of the acting company. This production, splendidly designed by Dede Ayite, puts the shop’s wildest and finest efforts on full display. Those crows and their claws! Evilene’s dress! The Tin Man’s steampunk headgear, body painting and beautiful costume! (You can see a video of the master stitcher talking about it here.
Speaking of that Tin Man, the experience of the show on opening night went something like this: Ashley Kelley seemed nervous at first as Dorothy, but she settled into the role once she got out of Kansas and into Oz. Her Aunt Em was played by Yvette Monique Clark (who also plays Evilene) in a fine, fine pink church suit, and though the song she sang to Dorothy isn’t the best song in the world (The Feeling That We Have), she has a strong and sure voice. (Perhaps too strong for the sensitive ears of the small, cat-like comma of a dog playing Toto, who was only on for one scene and was both predictably cute and a little less energetic than other Totos we all know.) Clark’s stand-and-deliver style in this song established her distance from and sadness about Dorothy, but that’s a mere prelude to the real action, which is, of course, the experience of Oz.
Many of The Wiz’s songs are, in essence, monologues from the characters and a chance for each performer to twinkle the stuffing out of the theater and perhaps move the audience. Once Dorothy got Oz instead of Kansas, that style worked well for Kelley and for J. Cameron Barnett, who plays the Scarecrow with charm and an insouciant street-kid attitude (combined with a heartbreaking Michael Jackson glove). Then Rodney Gardiner as the Tin Man raises what would be the roof in an indoor theater with his Slide Some Oil Into Me.
Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate Rodney Gardiner. His Nathan in Guys and Dolls last year obliterated any memory of other Nathans. His Feste in this year’s Twelfth Night can do anything, including but hardly limited to tap-dancing. And Gardiner’s Tin Man sports his characteristic combination of sarcasm, warmth and depth combined with a voice that incorporates the Dorothy and the Scarecrow, embracing the absurd story while inviting the audience to appreciate the sly sensuality of the song.
The Tin Man’s appearance would be the height of the show but for the next scene, when the (Cowardly) Lion’s couch emerges, and up from below arises Christiana Clark as the prancing, snarling, adorably tailed and amusingly afraid beast. She takes over the theater (and probably a few blocks around it as well) for her big number, I’m a Mean Ole Lion. Clark sparkles later, too, in a scene with the sexy Poppies (including a fine Beyoncé joke), and she settles the emotions of the quest group; the Lion and Dorothy play off each other generously for the rest of the show.
At that point, we’re already well into the third, or fourth, reprise of the wonderful Ease On Down the Road. The plot fades – we all pretty much know what happens – but the deep glamour of the show has barely begun.
The Emerald City has never looked so fantastically lush, with scenic design by Christopher Acebo, video design by Jeff Sugg and lighting design by Japhy Weideman all emphasizing and heightening the weird wildness of this true Green World as well as the stars appearing as night falls over the Elizabethan Stage.
Sometimes the show is chaotic, partly because beyond the basics of the Dorothy plot, there’s so much happening. A live orchestra performs behind the center of the stage, with conductor Bert Cross II standing slightly off stage right, where he can conduct the musicians and also the stunningly good backup singers – Stephanie Anne Johnson, Daniela Cobb, and Michael J. McDonald, whose costume changes are nearly as impressive as those of the (award-worthy) ensemble.
The Wiz himself (Jordan Barbour) mixes James Brown jumpsuits, George Clinton colors and attitude, and the kind of theatricality that could bring an audience roaring to its feet if it weren’t already almost exhausted from the visual spectacle that is the rest of the show.
In short, all of the disparate pieces of this production add up to a spectacle that matters more than the sometimes pedestrian songs and the well-known story. Dorothy’s cool silver slippers twinkle into the night, and like last year’s Head Over Heels or 2014’s Into the Woods, The Wiz sends the audience singing and clapping out into the Ashland night.
- OSF’s The Wiz continues through October 15 on the Elizabethan Stage. Ticket and schedule information here.
- Read Suzi Steffen’s review of OSF’s Hamlet here.
- Read Steffen’s interview with Hamlet star Danforth Comins here.
- Read Steffen’s review of OSF’s Vietgone here.
- Read Steffen’s reviews of the Shakespeare festival’s first four shows in the 2016 season (Twelfth Night, The Yeomen of the Guard, Great Expectations, The River Bride) here.