A Broadway-bound new production The Wiz, featuring Wayne Brady and Deborah Cox, opened Thursday night at the Golden Gate Theater after several stops around the country. And it's a funny, bubbly production with some clever tweaks to the book.
The tenor of this production of The Wiz, directed by Schele Williams — who is also co-directing the musical adaptation of The Notebook premiering on Broadway this spring — is light-hearted and snappy, and that's established early when Dorothy (Nichelle Lewis) lands in Oz.
When Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North, remarks on the fact that Dorothy dropped a house on her evil sister Evvamean, she quips, "In this economy?!"
Helped by some book enhancements from comedian Amber Ruffin, there are plenty of jokes like that sprinkled throughout the show that keep the show feeling a bit more fresh than its 1970s origins — and fresher than its 1900 source material, which some Bay Area theatergoers already saw slightly "updated" at A.C.T. last summer.
But the true highlights of this production of The Wiz come in several stellar performances, including from breakout young star Lewis and her jaw-dropping singing, and in the dance sequences, with choreography by Jaquel Knight (of Beyonce's "Single Ladies" fame). The dancing, from the early numbers by the Scarecrow (Avery Wilson) and Tinman (Phillip Johnson Richardson), to the Emerald City "nightclub" sequence at the opening of Act 2, keeps the show from ever drifting into the dreariness that can accompany L. Frank Baum's darkly tinged plot.
This is, after all, a quest story about finding home and seeking out missing parts of oneself that ends with a con man dashing everyone's dreams.
Brady is terrific as said con man, The Wiz, which in this show is a Las Vegas-type performer taking center stage instead of a creepy "man behind the curtain."
Other standout moments come from Melody A. Betts, who gets the show's first big number as Auntie Em, but truly gets to shine when she reappears as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. Betts chews up all kinds of scenery as the witch, and belts to the rafters on her Act 2 number, "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News."
And a full-throated Deborah Cox is also delightful in her brief moments as Glinda — primarily in the next-to-last song, "Believe In Yourself."
Some songs from the original Wiz have been excised from Act 2, and one has been added, Luther Vandross's "Everybody Rejoice." But the pacing ends up feeling a bit haphazard — Evillene's death, for instance, feels a bit rushed, as does the transition to the famous closing song "Home," but other sections drag a bit. The show also never resolves like the original Wiz or Wizard of Oz — we're left to assume that Dorothy makes it back to Kansas and Auntie Em, though we never see it.
Also gone in this version, which may disappoint dog lovers — there is no Toto.
The plot points and characters of The Wizard of Oz feel like such well macerated bits of cultural slaw at this point that it's hard to see even the freshest of productions with fresh eyes. But this take The Wiz does its level best to bring us into modern times, and to show us how a Wiz revival in 2024 might look — which also happened in 2015's The Wiz: Live! on NBC (there was also a dance-music-driven, vogue-y nightclub version of the "Emerald City Ballet" in that version, for instance).
I wish I could say it's a wholesale, mind-blowing reinvention, but it's not. It's still a good time with a number of hearty laughs, even for seasoned fans of the material. See it now for the singing and dancing alone, before it likely gets tweaked a bit more for Broadway in March.
'The Wiz' is playing at the Golden Gate Theater through February 11. Find tickets here.
Top image: Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion, Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman, Avery Wilson as Scarecrow. Photo by Jeremy Daniel