By JOAN TADDIE
Brevard Culture Theater Critic
From melting witches and pyrotechnics, to a diverse audience gathered for a communal joy, there’s magic on stage at the Henegar’s production of “The Wiz.”
The story and characters that we all know from watching the 1939 classic Judy Garland movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” are all in “The Wiz,” but with a contemporary twist — it is an all African American musical. Financially backed by Twentieth Century-Fox, it opened in 1975 on Broadway and won seven Tony Awards, including “Best Musical.” A Michael Jackson/Diana Ross movie version of “The Wiz” came three years later.
At the Henegar, a screen on stage with a projected video of a field of swaying corn greets the audience. As music director Sarah Germain concludes the overture with the spirited “Ease on Down the Road,” we briefly meet Toto as he runs across the stage chased by Dorothy. Director Amanda Cheyenne Manis double-cast Dorothy. Alex Robinson played the role in this performance. Ana Monet alternates as Dorothy.
There is an abundance of talent in this production and loads of ladies with extraordinary, powerful voices all rewarded by the audience’s whoops and cheers and enthusiastic applause. J’Renee Dickson’s Aunt Em wins our hearts in the first scene as she sympathizes with Dorothy living on the Kansas farm with her and Uncle Henry, sensitively played by Joshua Gee. Dickson’s passionate rendition of “The Feeling We Once Had” introduces the audience to Charlie Small’s music of the African-American culture that took Broadway by storm.
In William F. Brown’s libretto, three magical sisters survive the Wicked Witch of the East, who is killed when Dorothy’s house lands on her. They are Addaperle (Val Williams), Evillene (Shara Kyles) and Glinda (Nicole Evans).
Ms. Williams endears as Addaperle, appropriately costumed to represent a familiar figure in African-American culture, the church lady. Addaperle welcomes Dorothy and introduces her to the Munchkins of Oz. (Don’t expect little people with high voices.) Ms. Williams owns the stage with her fluid movements and expressive face as she attempts unsuccessfully, but with delightful humor, to use her bungled magic tricks to help Dorothy get home. Addaperle’s strong vocals entertain, but the circular choreography with the Munchkins blocks her and Dorothy visually, and we lose the ability to enjoy her comic performance.
The stage erupts at the beginning of Act 2 when we meet the Wicked Witch of the West. Shara Kyles, as Evillene, bursts onto the stage loud in both voice and costume. Ms. Kyles’s explosive delivery of the shout-song, “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” pulls the toe-tapping audience right back into the Land of Oz after intermission. But, as quickly as she enters, Evilene is just as quickly melted and evaporated by some fabulous special effects.
Near the end of the show, we meet the Good Witch Glinda, a beautiful and stately African Queen who enters with an entourage of graceful, African women protecting their Queen with a large decorative gold umbrella. Ms. Evans is stunning in her exquisite, gold African headdress and flowing, gold embroidered robe. In this scene, Glinda reveals to Dorothy that she has always had the power to return home if she will “click her heels three times” and believe in herself. Ms. Evans captures the moment beautifully as she sings the stirring reprise of “Believe in Yourself” to Dorothy.Another lady with a powerhouse voice, Nina Jones, makes her debut at The Henegar as The Wiz, a role traditionally played by a male actor. Ms. Jones is classically trained and has performed in operas internationally, but she easily slips into this production’s mix of gospel, rock and soul music and rocks the house with her opening number, “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard.” Her acting chops blossoms in Act 2 when, like an inspired preacher, The Wiz gives her final speech before she leaves Oz. Ms. Jones also stops the show with a riveting musical interpretation of “Believe in Yourself.”
But of all the characters in the story, the most memorable and beloved remain Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion and Dorothy. In “The Wiz” they are all still hopeful that if they kill Evilene, the Wicked Witch of the West, they will get brains, a heart, courage and home. But they don’t “Follow a Yellow Brick Road,” they “Ease on Down the Road.”
Felander Stevenson is a natural in the role of Scarecrow. His flexibility, vocals, dance, acting and his comedic timing serve him well as his character struggles to remain on his feet as he journeys and dances through the Land of Oz in hopes of getting a brain. Throughout, Mr. Stevenson effectively uses his face, and especially his eyes, to show how hard he tries to think without a brain. He sings and dances to “I Was Born On the Day Before Yesterday,” the show’s first up tempo, rhythmic musical number which wakes up the audience who showers Mr. Stevenson with cheers and extended applause.
Tin Man is the next character Dorothy meets, and the audience sees a man in a hardhat, still silver jeans, jean jacket, and work boots. Tuesday Flewellyn, only 17 years old, sings and dances to “Slide Some Oil To Me,” moving more and more isolated parts of his body as Dorothy and Scarecrow lubricate his rusty exterior. This number is an audience favorite as the jazzy, sexy beat intensified. Tuesday showed his acting versatility when he “showed” his heart in the beautiful “What Would I Do If I Could Feel.” Tuesday is a triple threat who we will be seeing a lot more of.
Brian Hancock plays Lion as well-groomed and wearing the fashionable clothes of a man. Lion performs the hard driving number “(I’m a) Mean Ole Lion,” as he tries to frighten Dorothy, Tin Man and Scarecrow. Mr. Hancock can dance and sing very well and has a full deep tone, just right for a lion. What is missing is a more defined contrast between the mean lion that he wants to be and the pussy cat that he is. This contrast is what makes Lion so funny, sweet and vulnerable.
As Dorothy, Ms. Robinson has the heart to play this iconic part. She connects with the other characters, including her one scene with Toto, and genuinely finds nonverbal ways to react to other actors. She charms in “Be a Lion” which she sings to her new defeated and discouraged friend. An excellent dancer, Ms. Robinson doesn’t miss a beat. The biggest challenge to every young woman who is cast as Dorothy in “The Wiz” is to sing “Home” at the very end of the production. Ms. Robinson took the challenge and performed this piece with guts, honesty and heart.
“The Wiz” has its share of technical challenges such as melting witches, and pyrotechnics. These worked very well and added a bit of unexpected magic for the audience to enjoy. Kudos to the technical director, Steve Rossi, and his creative team including lighting designer Joshua Huss, sound designer Thom Restivo, and stage manager Elizabeth Wilson. David McQuillen Robertson is the scenic designer for this production.
Another challenge that was met was the creation and construction of the many unique costumes. Shannon Reppert was given the task of costume design and coordination of the many volunteers who helped complete this task.
Kim Cole, the choreographer, created the many production numbers. I must say I missed seeing four people creating a moving Yellow Brick Road so the characters could actually “ease on down a road.” The many demanding vocal ranges in this score required careful editing by the vocal director, Ben Rose, and the music director, Sarah Germain. On the night I saw this production, the overture tempo was slow until “Ease on Down the Road.” The audience relaxed when the tempo picked up.
Director Amanda Cheyenne Manis in her “Letter From the Director” in the program wrote that “our ensemble is made up of people of all ethnic groups”…that Emerald City would be “full of people of all skin tones dancing, singing, and enjoying life.”
After the show, I walked back to the lobby and saw children of all skin tones waiting patiently in line to hug and have a picture taken with their favorite character; characters of all skin tones, like them… How magical!
SIDE O’ GRITS: “The Wiz” runs through Sunday at the Hengar. Tickets are $19 to $29. Parking is difficult right now because of construction, so valet parking is available for $10. The Henegar is at 625 E. New Haven Ave. Call 321-723-8698 or visit Henegar.org.