By Michael Buzzelli
Newly orphaned Dorothy (Nichelle Lewis) isn’t vibing to Kansas, but she isn’t there too long to lament. A twister picks her up, carries her off and flies her out of the arms of her Aunt Em (Melody A. Betts). The tornado dumps her and her house smack dab in the middle of the land of Oz where the townspeople are overjoyed because she crashed down on a wicked witch and smooshed her.
Addaperle (Allyson Kaye Daniel deftly delivering the snarkiest lines in the show) and her blingy sister Glinda (Deborah Cox) give Dorothy the witch’s shoes, a pair of magic silver slippers. The sorcerous sisters send her off to meet the Wiz (Alan Mingo, Jr.) to aid her on her journey home.
Just like L. Frank Baum’s original it’s not about the destination, but the journey, and the friends she meets along the way. Dorothy eases down the Yellow Brick Road and meets the Scarecrow (Avery Wilson), the Tinman (Phillip Johnson Richardson) and the Lion ( Kyle Ramar Freeman).
But the wicked witch’s sister, the equally wicked Evillene (Melody A. Betts), wants those darn silver shoes and she’s willing to kill to get them. Obviously, anyone named Evillene is bound to be a little bit naughty.
“The Wiz” is not only updated from the classic, “Wizard of Oz” it’s an even more updated version of “The Wiz.” It’s not a copy of a copy but an improvement on the original production. The lines are sassier, funnier.
For some reason, the Wicked Witch runs a factory, but even her factory workers, the Winkies (the ensemble), don’t know what they’re manufacturing, but let’s not talk about “The Wiz” that was. This updated version is sheer joy.
“The Wizard of Oz” is pure fantasy where the hero is an ordinary kid who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances. It appeals to children and adults alike. With “The Wiz” we get all of that – and representation.
Dorothy finds her agency pretty quickly and that’s a good thing. Lewis (at 24 but looking 17) commands the stage. She is charismatic and charming.
Betts is a belter of the highest order. She has a powerful vocal instrument and uses it superbly.
Wilson’s Scarecrow was phenomenal. His movements were incredible as he flopped around like he was actually made of straw. He also gave some great line reads.
Richardson’s Tinman is amazing. The character starts off stiff and clunky but the actor is smooth and graceful and once the Tinman’s oiled up, Richardson moves fluidly, effortlessly around the stage.
Freeman did a fantastic job as the Lion. He pounced and pranced his way into the hearts of the audience. He’s a star.
Side note: The Lion has always been my favorite character (Burt Lahr and Ted Ross).
Mingo serves up a creepy Wiz. He’s scheming and despicable, but in the most delightful way.
Cox does such a great job as Glinda, it’s the first time I don’t want to smack her when she says, “You had the power to go home all along.”
P.S. I always wanted to grab the Tinman’s axe and chase after Billie Burke (Glinda from the original 1939 “Wizard of Oz”).
The cast is, literally and figuratively, wonderful. Every Winkie, Kalidah, Ozian and Poppy (it’s an amazing ensemble of talented actors, dancers and singers).
The kaleidoscopic costumes by Sharen Davis are out of this world. Cox’s Glinda’s outfit is a dazzling disco ball of perfection, sparkling, gleaming and dazzling the audience.
Hannah Beachler’s scenic design was amazing. Projection design by Daniel Brodie was the icing on this already delicious layer cake.
Beachler and Brodie worked in unison on the transition from Black & White to Color, like in the original 1939 Movie Musical. The audience was in awe as Dorothy left the drab Kansas farm and landed in the Crayola-colored Oz.
It was such a great show, you have to wonder why Dorothy wanted to go home.
If you want to see a fantastic production on a great big stage, ease on down the road, or in this case, avenue (Penn Avenue to be exact).
“The Wiz” runs from October 31st through November 5th at the Benedum Center, Seventh Street and Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.