I watched the whole thing. And really dug it, although The Wiz Live! is scarcely my usual kind of fare. I’m not big on children’s literature, on musicals, on camp icons. But I am big on watching talent onscreen and there was an abundance of that in this production.
The show opens with Dorothy (Shanice Williams, 18 years old) sulkingly uncooperative with her Aunt Em (Stephanie Mills, the original Broadway Dorothy), with whom she is living after losing her parents. Mills has a beautiful voice and Aunt Em is remarkably loving and patient. Shanice Williams presents Dorothy as an older, up-to-date (plaid, pleated mini-skirt) healthy teenager who seems a bit awkward as she develops into her young adult body. While Williams holds the stage with dynamic maturity and luscious singing, and provides the glue for the three others in her posse, I don’t find her quite as endearing or charismatic as I had hoped.
Her three friends, though, are powerhouses. Elijah Kelley conveys explosive energy as the Scarecrow who has no brain, and his dancing and singing negate the quite creepy make-up he is given. David Alan Grier plays the Lion who, while he may lack courage, certainly doesn’t lack candor. I had no idea Grier was such a proficient singer, and his acting flawlessly conveys lovability. Finally there’s Ne-Yo’s Tin Man. Where there should be a heart, there is fantastic dancing and singing, and a heap of cool. I could not take my eyes off of him.
Good Witch Addaperle is played by the gifted Amber Riley, who was clearly underused in Glee. Here she’s commanding and sweet. Mary J. Blige overacts the Wicked Witch of the West, just as she should. Uzo Aduba (Orange Is The New Black) has too small a part as Glinda (her gown is a knock-out), and sings with a surprisingly lovely, deep voice.
I felt a tinge of disappointment in the performances of Common and Queen Latifah. Common seems uncomfortable trying to butch it up as the Bouncer, and perhaps is unsure of his lines. Queen Latifah, with her rocker white and green pompadour wig, is The Wiz, and what could be better than all the other characters addressing Latifah as Sir? However, there is something distracting about her brilliant costume, which gives her the odd look of pregnancy. Worse, her singing is a bit sketchy. When she is later caught in her con as The Wiz, she is much more appealing in her bathrobe.
I’m not familiar with the original script, but I certainly felt the hand of Harvey Fierstein, who adapted the script. He injects mahhhvellous campy references galore (from the Spice Girls and Eddie Murphy quips to a whole flock of voguers), and gives Dorothy a good deal of power over her own decisions. Most of all, Fierstein allows the characters to cop as much attitude as they can grab.
The Cirque du Soleil adds acrobatic oomph to the various monsters and flying creatures Dorothy encounters. And costume designer Paul Tazewell displays genius throughout, from the Lion’s mane of dreadlocks and furry vest to Common’s jagged security-man garb to the Tin Man’s inflexible patchwork of metal plates. And of course there is the music – much of it triumphant. Out of the many remarkable songs, for me Dorothy and her three friends kill it with “We Got It,” an anthem of solidarity.
Three things bothered me.
1. If you have to have 7 gazillion commercials, then bundle them together and keep the interruptions down to two or three. The continuous copious short commercial breaks ($330,000 to $350,000 for 30 seconds) were disruptive, at best.
2. If you’re going to do a live show, then have a live audience. The lack of an audience was peculiar and counter-productive. There were jokes, there were crescendos, but there was no corresponding reaction, making for a discordant flow.
3. Am I the only one who felt that the several LED screens that provided the sketch-pad for production designer Derek McLane’s backdrops were oddly present, occasionally affecting my ability to suspend belief?
Overall, considering that I have no special feeling for either kiddy lit or musicals, this production won my attention and my admiration. It is sensational, spirited eye candy that melds music with a great story, along with the thrill of seeing favorite stars in new kinds of roles. Well done!
If you want to watch The Wiz Live! - here's the link.