The Wiz, book by William F. Brown; music by Charlie Smalls, Timothy Graphenreed, Harold Wheeler, and Luther Vandross; and lyrics by Charlie Smalls, Zachary Walzer, and Luther Vandross; directed by Jeff Church. Produced by the Coterie Theatre (Kansas City). First produced 1974. (Seen June 24, 2011.)
During the post-show speeches of the opening night of the Coterie’s The Wiz, Jeff Church stated that there aren’t many professional productions put on of this show. And there’s a good reason why. This ambitious take on The Wizard of Oz is a retelling of the book version with an African-American context, and the Coterie should get kudos for even attempting such a feat — especially in their space.
There are a lot of good things about this production. The use of Noh-like theatre techniques throughout the production (especially for the storm) really added a sense of the mystic to it. Church did a great job of using the space to its best, having lights in the house over the walkway for the travelling down the yellow brick road. I loved the use of puppets throughout, especially as the crows. The costumes rocked — especially for the three co-travelers of Dorothy. And the first round song “Brand New Day” was definitely worthy of dancing along to.
But as Brad Shaw, who was outstanding as the Tinman, says at one point, “These days, it’s just not enough to be good lookin’.”
The show, combining the two acts into one, felt rushed. And I’m not sure if this was because it was intended to be a kid’s production or because of the space limitations (or even because of opening night jitters), but it constantly felt like the production was holding back. Tosin Morohunfola’s portrayal of the Scarecrow especially felt held back, like he was afraid to go too far with the role or be too zany. There were many times that the orchestra overwhelmed the singing, but that could have been a sound issue as I wondered more than once whether the actors were even miked. And the use of a smoke machine, while the techie in me was impressed, went a bit too far in such an enclosed space, making the claustrophobic feel even worse.
Emily Shackelford did a decent job as Dorothy, playing the innocent throughout. And she definitely has a set of pipes on her. While Darmon Russel Armstrong’s Wiz did an excellent job in the revival-esque “Y’all Got It!” (especially in getting the kids on the floor to participate), I was less than impressed with his James Brown impersonation, as it just felt off and out of place.
Quote of the evening: When the cast started singing one of the end songs (I want to say it was “Home”), a kid from the other side stated, “Here we go again!”
One of the things I’ve liked about the Coterie is that (for the most part) I have been able to enjoy the shows, even though I don’t have (and don’t plan on having) kids. Taking their cue from such things as the Muppets, Bugs Bunny cartoons, and even Pixar, the Coterie has time and again shown that the best way to get to the kids is to have it resonate with the adults as well. Unfortunately, this production seems to have been too focused on making it just for the kids. Great if you have kids … not so much for those of us who don’t.
The Wiz is playing at the Coterie Theatre until August 7, and more information can be found at www.coterietheatre.org.