Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Wiz

Cain Park’s ‘THE WIZ’ entertains, but……..

It is rumored that ‘THE WIZ,’ will be the last fully-conceived musical on the large Evans Stage at Cain Park. If so, it could only be hoped that the facility would go out with a bang. The script of ‘THE WIZ’ is a bang; unfortunately, the production, in spite of a fine cast and production team, is a whimper of what it could have been.

‘THE WIZ,’ a contemporary take on ‘THE WIZARD OF OZ,’ has an underbelly of African American slang, movements and musical sounds. If you are over 30, don’t go expecting it to be Judy Garland’s Oz. Think “Ease on Down the Road” instead of “”Follow the Yellow Brick Road;” “Slide Some Oil to Me,” instead of “If I Only Had a Brain; and the Wiz wailing, “Y’all Got It!”

The show, which opened on Broadway in 1975, features music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls. It ran in the Big Apple for 1,672 performances. Surprisingly, a movie version, which modified the story, added some songs, and starred Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Nipsey Russell, was a critical and box office flop.

The Cain Park production, under the direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault, lacks many of the dynamics that the play engenders. This is rock and gospel musical which contains a tornado, munchkins, good and bad witches and wonderful characters who are bigger than life. I needed to be bouncing in my seat and awed by the goings-on. As it is, I was lightly entertained.

Usually, when one sees community theatre, and that is what Cain Park is, a community, not an equity theatre, one expects something less than a professional staging. However, Brault has proven his directing worth and had an outstanding cast and a creative production team, so much was expected. Now, to be fair, I did see the preview performance, but the flaws aren’t such that can be fixed without some major restaging and an infusion of passion.

Even the usual dynamic choreography of Martin Cespedes was subdued and sometimes unfocused. Many of the dances were “nice.” Cespedes usually creates “great.” For instance, in the tornado scene, the stage didn’t explode with energy. A handful of dancers with ribbons attempted to create the storm. The set pieces didn’t “fly-off” stage, and even the band wasn’t frenetic enough.

On the positive side, Malika Petty has a wonderful voice and made a “cute-as-a-button” Dorothy. There was a joyousness in her performance. Unfortunately, at times her speaking voice went into a high-pitch screaming level which was like fingernails scratching on the blackboard. Several of the other actors also had this problem.

Christopher Weible (Scarecrow) has a good singing voice. His “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday,” was excellent.

My favorite characterization was put in by Gerald Clarke as Toto….that guy can dance and grabs and holds the stage.

Kyle Primus (the Wiz) did a wonderful rendition of “Believe in Yourself,” which carries the play’s moral. It’s a shame that Primus, who is a wonderful dancer, didn’t get to show more of that talent. Colleen Longshaw’s “A Rested Body is a Rested Mind” and “Believe in Yourself” were vocal highlights.

The man in drag playing a large woman has been done to death. Why Brault, who is extremely creative, decided to pull out that tired gimmick is questionable. However, if it was to be used it had to be done well. Unfortunately, Dan Call, who portrayed Addaperie, one of the good witches, didn’t do it well. His “He’s the Wiz,” instead of being a show stopper, fell flat. He needed to let loose and be over-the-top, not just look ridiculous in a bad fitting wig and ruffles.

Darryl Lewis is one of my favorite local performers, but he let me down as the Lion. He was basically one-dimensional. The role needed more texturing, More ‘big bad Lion” who is really a “scardy little cat.”

The strongest dancing was performed by the crows (Lawrence Farmer, Michael Medcalf and Terrell Richardson, Jr.).

Russ Borski’s costumes were wonderful. Richard Gould’s set, though impressive, sometimes got in the way of the actors. Some of the pieces were awkward to move, dominated the stage, and were being schlepped on and off during scenes.

Musical Director Matthew Webb did the production a major disservice by not controlling the volume of his orchestra. They drowned out many of the musical numbers. There is no sense in singing words if the audience can’t hear them. Some of the blame must also go to Stan Kozak, for failing to work on the proper sound balances.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Most of those who attend ‘THE WIZ,’ and I hope there will be lots of them, will probably like the show. They will see a very adequate production. With this cast, and the talent of the director and the choreographer, they should be seeing a superb production. Pity!