The Wiz Live! – A Review
Like the tornado that lifted Dorothy to the Land of Oz, NBC’s presentation of The Wiz Live! blew me away to places I have never been where made-for-TV musicals are concerned. Skeptics be damned! The Wiz and its marvelous score are NOT dated properties and this version of the L. Frank Baum tale makes the best case yet for the musical to be revived on Broadway. In any case, at least it has washed away the stain of the misbegotten 1978 film version that, despite an all-star cast, was bleak and overwrought. This Wiz is magical.
From the opening number “The Feeling We Once Had”, this television reimagining had me glued to my seat. Stephanie Mills, Dorothy in the original Broadway production of The Wiz, made an unforgettable Aunt Em. Her vocal pipes are as wonderful as they ever were, and the emotional gravitas she brought to her one quick moment in the production had impact. Amber Riley (Glee) made for an appropriately sassy Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North, exhaling gusto to spare to “He’s The Wizard.” As Dorothy makes her way down the Yellow Brick Road, she encounters her three iconic counterparts in the Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley), The Tin Man (Ne-Yo), and The Cowardly Lion (David Alan Grier). Kelly is a strong dancer and engaged the use of his nimble appendages in playing the brainless man of straw. Though I was disappointed at the replacing of the character’s “I Was Born the Day Before Yesterday” from the original with “You Can’t Win” from the film, the sequence worked well. Grier’s Cowardly Lion was a laugh riot down to his fussy growls and his affected purrs, though his “Mean Old Lion” was oddly staged so that we didn’t always get to revel in his best lyrics and facial expressions. Particularly effective was Ne-Yo’s Tin Man. His “Slide Some Oil To Me” was not as over-staged as the previous two numbers and we were able to hone in quickly on this heart-filled character who grieves over not having a heart. Later in the musical, he sang a heartbreaking “What Would I Do If I Could Feel?” At the Wizard’s palace, Common got some great moments and laughs as the Bouncer of Emerald City’s Gates. Queen Latifah as the humbug titular character brought her usual verve and attitude, creating a frightening force to be reckoned with in “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard?” Sadly, her time and music on the stage was somewhat truncated do to some edits, and we really wanted more moments with this diva supreme. Mary J. Blige was not quite the most menacing of Wicked Witches (rather ridiculous, really), but her vocal turn singing Evillene’s “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” was well-rendered and over the top. It was Uzu Aduba as Glinda, however, that transported audiences to a place of the ethereal and the rapt. “Believe in Yourself” may be the most well-known song from The Wiz, and Ms. Aduba put an indelible stamp on it that will become the standard by which this song is judged and interpreted.
Then there was Shanice Williams as Dorothy. Chosen from hundreds of relative unknowns, she had the daunting task of sharing the stage with this battery of heavyweight stars. Williams performed with the confidence and stamina of any of these seasoned vets. Her first big number “Soon As I Get Home” was tempered with emotional variety and judicious fragility. “Be a Lion” is a belter’s dream, but she managed to infuse it with more than just volume. It was heartfelt. She joyously and confidently handled The Wiz’s grooviest song “Ease on Down the Road” and managed to top all of her performances with the soaring “Home.” We will be seeing a lot more of Ms. Williams. I’d certainly love to see her as a replacement in this season’s revival of The Color Purple.
Let’s talk about the music for a moment: Charlie Small’s score is always infectious, melodic and energized. I must admit, however, that my favorite song from The Wiz is “Brand New Day” by Luther Vandross. I cannot think of too many Broadway numbers that radiate such joy and burst with so much optimism as this one. It was a highlight of the television production. A new song by Ne-Yo, with assist by Harvey Mason, Jr., Stephen Oremus and Elijah Kelly, was interpolated into the score. “We Got It”, though an agreeable song in its own right, did not feel like it was cut from the same fabric as the rest of the score. It felt disjointed and out of place here. Along with “I Was Born the Day Before Yesterday”, I also grieved the absence of “Who Do You Think You Are?” and the initial performance of “Believe in Yourself” by The Wizard.
Harvey Fierstein’s rewrites of the script mostly worked, though it did feel like his resolutions became too pat and/or abrupt as the show wore on. He succeeded better in the one-liners and in finding ways to make The Wiz feel fresh to contemporary audiences. One interesting choice was to have Dorothy’s dead mother appear to her in the Kalidah Forest, only to find out she was a monster in disguise. I am not sure that this was necessary. Fierstein’s new line “Home isn’t where you live, it’s where you love”, though a bit hokey, resonates in this day and age where family is not defined in the same ways as it was in 1975 when The Wiz premiered. This is a new Oz for the 21st Century with a brighter, more colorful rainbow of diversity.
On the physical side of the production, there were some jaw dropping sequences including a first-rate tornado complete with actors flying, menacing choreography and spooky, spectacular projections. The sets were colorful and clever, vibrantly bringing to life the fantastical world of Oz. The costumes were some of the finest EVER to grace a stage or screen musical. Of particular note, Addaperle’s jolly blue dress and pointed hat, and Glinda’s voluminous golden dressmaker’s masterpiece were standouts. Fatima Robinson’s choreography was inspired throughout, even funny at times, but always helping to tell the story. Kenny Leon’s direction was varied and original.
There were some glitches along the way, especially with the camera work. Long periods would go by without the camera settling on or framing the character who was supposed to be in the spotlight. Addaperle had some trouble disappearing in a forgivable technical backfire. The puppet of the Wizard’s head was clunky and not that imaginative. Considering the fact that he is supposed to be imposing, he felt more like a second-rate Disney animatronic.
These minor quibbles aside, producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan have finally achieved something they have been striving for these last few years: a first rate live television musical experience that entertains and enchants. This production pulled out all of the stops. Perhaps it was to their advantage that they chose a property that was less beloved than The Sound of Music and Peter Pan? Many of us have been pulling for them to succeed and, with The Wiz, they most assuredly have. Let’s hope NBC feels compelled to keep this holiday tradition…a tradition!