Though plenty of other people did, I didn’t much like The Wiz, which opened last night and runs through October 15 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s outdoor Elizabethan Theatre. While earnest and well enough presented, this revival of the 1975 Tony Award winner lacked a clear reason for landing here in 2016.
The play is an adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s famous book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and subsequent blockbuster movie The Wizard of Oz, setting that white, white story in a black idiom. At its best – according to past reviews – the show has worked as an anthem of hope for the African-American community. The production history is interesting: The Wiz nearly shut down for lack of audience until its producers mounted a successful marketing campaign aimed at African-Americans; that led to a four-year run and a blizzard of awards.
None of this cultural background is apparent, though, in the show I saw last night, which seemed deliberately unconscious of its own lineage. It was presented on the big Elizabethan stage without even a semblance of a set – budget problems at OSF? – except for a series of lava-lampish video projections that covered the Globe facade. At times the show felt so small it was like a very clever high school production that had inexplicably landed in a giant venue.
The songs – the best known is Ease on Down the Road – are done in that broad ballad style, with over the top vibrato, that is now familiar from every aspiring young singer who tackles the Star Spangled Banner at a baseball game. The singers are all miked, and the sound last night was a blur of over amplification, like listening to a very loud radio.
The best thing to be said for this Wiz is that the costumes, by Dede M. Ayite, are thoroughly fabulous, from the gold lamé dance outfits that channel the Yellow Brick Road to the roly poly, brightly colored munchkins to various darker and more brooding creatures of Oz. The Tin Man is mildly steampunk, the Lion is sultry and leonine, and the Scarecrow is – well, fabulous.
Ashley D. Kelley plays the role of Dorothy with a nice combination of tenderness and bravado. (She will be replaced by Britney Simpson from August 18 to the end of the season.)
J. Cameron Barnett is a loose-limbed, brainless Scarecrow, Christiana Clark plays the cowardly Lion as Nina Simone might have, and OSF veteran Rodney Gardiner, as the heartless Tinman, turned in the best vocal performance of the evening with his What Would I Do if I Could Feel.
Robert O’Hara directs, with musical direction by Darcy Danielson and choreography by Byron Easley. Christopher Acebo is scenic designer, and video design is by Jeff Sugg.
A small annoyance: The frequent wild whoops and over the top applause from company members salted throughout the audience last night often seemed forced when the rest of the crowd was clapping rather more moderately. Let it go, folks. We can figure it out on our own.
The Wiz, in many ways, was the Hamilton of its day, taking an iconic whitebread American story and making it more broadly inclusive. It’s too bad the show I saw last night missed the opportunity to reflect on its own cultural heritage.