Review: Broadway in Chicago’s The Wiz Casts a Magic Spell
Just about halfway between MGM's (and Judy Garland's) immortal The Wizard of Oz and Broadway's current box-office smash Wicked, there was another musical retelling of L. Frank Baum's classic American fairy tale. In 1975, The Wiz premiered on Broadway, earned seven Tony Awards, landed two songs on Billboard Magazine's Hot 100 ("Ease on Down the Road" and "Home"), and launched the careers of popular singer Stephanie Mills and Broadway stalwart Andre de Shields, among others.
With music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls (with the notable assistance of Luther Vandross for the second act anthem "Brand New Day") and a book by William F. Brown, The Wiz was an early example of a big-budget Broadway hit with an all-Black cast that drew thousands of fans for its infectious tunes, imaginative staging and bravura performances. No less a theater luminary than Stephen Sondheim called it his favorite Broadway show (not written by himself, of course).
Now, The Wiz is back—here in Chicago for a 10-day run as a part of its pre-Broadway tour. With belly-laugh additions to the book by Late Show with Seth Meyers writer Amber Ruffin and spectacular choreography by JaQuel Knight (Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" choreographer), this production, directed by Schele Williams, is at once celebration of the show's storied place in musical theater history and a creative new retelling of its familiar tale.
All three of Dorothy's traveling companions—Scarecrow (an elastic-limbed Avery Wilson), Tinman (the beautifully voiced Phillip Johnson Richardson) and Cowardly Lion (natural clown Kyle Ramar Freeman)—stand out with captivating turns in their iconic roles. Chicago native Melody Betts, who plays the dual role of Aunt Em and Wicked Witch Evillene, provides a master class in how to hold a stage in two very different performances.
The Wiz himself, portrayed here by Alan Mingo Jr., is a classic conman with darting eyes and a ready excuse in all of his scenes. And Broadway and dance music diva Deborah Cox is captivating in the glittery role of Glinda.
Nichelle Lewis, who, as Dorothy stands at the very heart of the show, has a warm, gorgeous voice that delivers her songs—especially the show-closer, the aching ballad "Home"—straight to the heart of the audience. When not singing, however, she displays a certain hesitancy in her performance that indicates she perhaps needs to become more comfortable with the non-musical aspects of the role to truly inhabit the character of lost girl who just wants to go home.
The show also needs to improve its sound design—lyrics were lost amidst the raucous music coming from the orchestra pit. And scene transitions—in particular, the initial move from black-and-white Kansas to colorful Oz—need to be tightened to deliver more impact.
But, overall, this is a magical show and production. Like L. Frank Baum, I'm tempted to call it absolutely wonderful.
The Wiz plays at the Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 W. Randolph) through December 10. The show runs approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets are available at www.BroadwayinChicago.com.
For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.
Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene and sometimes beyond? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!