Sunday, June 21, 2009

Easing on Down the Road

The Wiz
Music and Lyrics by Charlie Smalls
Book by William F. Brown
Directed by Thomas Kail
Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Conducted by Alex Lacamoire

Starring Ashanti, Orlando Jones, Joshua Henry, James Monroe Iglehart, Christian Dante White, Tichina Arnold, Dawnn Lewis, LaChanze

Performances from June 12-July 5, 2009
New York City Center
131 West 55th Street

LaChanze and Ashanti in The Wiz (photo: Robert J Safterstein)
The Wiz, the funky take-off on The Wizard of Oz, won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1975, ran for four years, and made Stephanie Mills a star. The 1978 Sidney Lumet movie version, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, is best forgotten, and a Broadway revival in the mid-80s fizzled out, but the new Summer Stars presentation by Encores! is an agreeable evening only partially weakened by the likeable but shrinking violet Ashanti as Dorothy.

There was no doubt that a “name” would be Dorothy to help bring in audiences, but since Beyonce was unavailable, I thought of Rhianna, who would have brought liveliness to the stage, instead of Ashanti's mostly dull presence enlivened only when she belts out Charlie Smalls’ songs, notably the show’s powerful climax, “Home.” Of course, a certain naïveté is needed for our young heroine, who matures as she befriends the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion while finding her way to Emerald City and back to Kansas. Ashanti, however, seems at sea in ways unrelated to Dorothy’s own travails.

Aside from her and Orlando Jones’ charmless wizard, the performers are definitely Wiz worthy. Christian Dante White's Scarecrow, Joshua Henry's Tin Man and James Monroe Iglehart's Lion sing strongly, dance agilely and get decent mileage from the jokes in William F. Brown’s musty but freshened-up book. Our three witches—Dawnn Lewis's Addaperle (The Good Witch of the North), Tichina Arnold's Evillene (The Wicked Witch of the West), and LaChanze’s Glinda (The Good Witch of the South)—helpfully take the spotlight off Ashanti during their show-stopping numbers, with the multi-talented LaChanze doing double duty as Aunt Em singing the emotional opening song, "The Feeling We Once Had," which bookends her impassioned final number, "Believe in Yourself." Rounding out the cast is Nigel, an adorable Cairn Terrier, who is a perfect Toto. Even his curtain call is charming, so kudos to trainer Bill Berloni.

Andy Blankenfelter's choreography takes full advantage of his skilled dance ensemble in a show that moves as much as it sings—especially during the dramatic Kansan tornado and the later dispatching of Evillene. David Korins' savvy sets, Ken Billington's lively lighting and Paul Tazewell's clever costumes bring Kansas and the Emerald City to imaginative life. Director Tom Kail is the production's own wizard behind the curtain, his only hiccup an inability to better integrate Ashanti's lack of experience into the proceedings; whenever she stands around looking lost, you wish she'd click her heels to magically propel her to a better performance.

The able Alex Lacamoire conducts the first-rate orchestra in such sure-fire tunes as "Ease on Down the Road," "What Would I Do if I Could Feel?" and "Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day)," the latter composed by Luther Vandross. For sheer family fun, it's off to see The Wiz.

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