The Wiz

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Photo: Jeremy Daniel Review
“The Wiz is a Wow!” shouted the TV commercials back in 1975 that helped transform the all-black musical take on the beloved 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” into a financial success that ran for four years (and earned seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical).

Sadly, don’t expect to hear the same kind of exuberance for director Schele Williams’ current production of “The Wiz” at the Marquis Theatre – at least from me. Yes, the show remains a crowd-pleaser, with its catchy Charlie Smalls songs (I’m still humming “Ease on Down the Road”) and clever-enough, fairly faithful book by William F. Brown (here punched up with some contemporary jokes by Amber Ruffin) to keep us entertained for 2 ½ hours.

Still Broadway audiences deserve something far better than this middling national-tour production that has been dropped into the Marquis for a limited run the same way Dorothy’s house was dropped into Oz after a tornado. True, no fatality occurs, just a sadly missed opportunity to introduce the show to new audiences (as well as delight older ones) with a first-rate reimagining of this beloved material.

In fairness, it’s also a bit hard for me to honestly evaluate what I saw on stage on April 13 due to a horribly muddled sound design that made many members of the talented cast close to inaudible. (When you literally cannot hear R&B diva Deborah Cox, as the good witch Glinda, from the fourth row, you know something is very wrong.)

Still, seeing is believing – not just hearing -- and the show’s two-dimensional sets (by Hannah Beachler) and sometimes less-than-inspired costumes (by Sharen Davis) contributed to my disappointment. Meanwhile, JaQuel Knight has contributed some energetic and stylish choreography, but his work can’t hold a candle to George Faison's original dance sequences, which were a true marvel to behold.

Intriguingly, “The Wiz” has always placed the heaviest burden on the show’s youngest cast member, and newcomer Nichelle Lewis makes a most appealing Dorothy. While clearly unhappy at the get-go about having to live with her good-natured Auntie Em after the death of her parents, Dorothy almost immediately understands the value of being “home” the second she unwittingly ends up in Oz and accidentally kills the Wicked Witch of the East.

Even with the sound design issues, it’s clear Lewis has a lovely plaintive voice that effectively sells such ballads as “Soon as I Get Home,” “Wonder, Wonder Why,” and her 11 o-clock showstopper “Home,” performed expertly here with some riffs worthy of the best “American Idol” contestant, but never lacking heart.

Lewis also creates great chemistry with her three new “friends” in Oz: The addled-brained but lovable Scarecrow (a truly adorable Avery Wilson in an impressive Broadway debut), the “heartless” but kind-hearted Tin Man (the excellent Phillip Johson Richardson, in romantic crooner mode), and the scaredy-cat lion (a properly outrageous Kyle Ramar Freeman, occasionally going a bit over the top), who accompany on her visit to the Emerald City.

Oddly, the group’s main obstacle is supposed to be the very powerful witch Evilene (Melody A. Betts), but she barely registers for most of the show – until her own showstopper, “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” explodes in the second act. And as the supposedly all-powerful Wiz (who has no power at all), Wayne Brady initially scores with his smooth game-show charm during “Meet the Wizard,” but he doesn’t do as much as one hopes with the role once the truth is revealed, settling for a standard characterization.

Indeed, Brady turns out to be no big deal – nor does “The Wiz.”

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 4/17/2024
Closing Open-ended

Theatre Info
Marquis Theatre
1535 Broadway
New York, NY 10036