Broadway Review

Wiz: Bumpy Yellow Brick Road Still Fabulous

There are a few bumps on the yellow brick road in the new revival of The Wiz at the Marquis Theater, but this shiny new rendition of the Tony-winning 1974 African-American retelling of L. Frank Baum’s beloved fantasy classic is a roof-raising crowd pleaser. Starting with the positive, the cast is full of exquisite triple threats who can sing, dance, and act their way into your hearts and make you believe all the magical elements of the story though you’ve heard them a thousand times before. The physical production, particularly the costumes of Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Sharen Davis, are imaginative and startlingly different from previous Oz iterations. Hannah Beachler’s sets, augmented by Daniel Brodie’s projections create a fabulously fantasy-filled environment.

The Wiz
Kyle Ramar Freeman, Nichelle Lewis, Phillip Johnson Richardson and Avery Wilson in The Wiz.
Credit: Jeremy Daniel

The only problems here are director Schele Williams’ too-slow pacing with unnecessarily lengthly pauses for laugh lines and dramatic effects, and Jon Weston’s sound design which doesn’t allow the magnificent voices to overcome the orchestra. As a result, Charlie Smalls’ memorable, hip lyrics get lost. Smalls’ music remains exciting.

But these flaws are compensated for by the exciting ensemble, many of whom are making their Broadway debuts. Chief among these is Nichelle Lewis, captivating as Dorothy and displaying a gorgeous set of pipes. She captures the young heroine’s trepidation as well as her growing confidence, skillfully charting her emotional journey as well as the magical one. For her three companions, she has a trio of dynamic gents, each given a chance to shine in the spotlight. Avery Wilson’s Scarecrow is a flexible, loose-jointed dancer whose eccentric movements charm. As the Tin Man, Phillip Johnson Richardson pours his heart into ballads for the metal guy seeking a heart. Kyle Ramar Freeman makes for a hilarious Cowardly Lion, spoofing the king of the jungle’s overwhelming fears and his sartorial love of his mane.

The WIz
Deborah Cox and Nichelle Lewis in The Wiz.
Credit: Jeremy Daniel

Deborah Cox is a dazzling Glinda, vocally and garment-wise, outfitted by Davis in sparkling gold ensemble. Melody A. Betts impresses by switching from the nurturing Aunt Em to the despicable Evillene, stopping the show with a rousingly nasty delivery of “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.” Allyson Kaye Daniel is a sassy Addaperle, Dorothy’s first guide in Oz. As the Wiz, Wayne Brady displays the same musical and comic versatility he showcases daily as the host of Let’s Make a Deal. I was kinda hoping Amber Ruffin who is credited with additional book material would work in a gag with the Wizard asking Dorothy if she would trade in her silver slippers for Door Number Two.

Ruffin’s updates to William F. Brown’s original book are welcome and make the material more relatable to contemporary audiences. Toto is absent and not really missed. Dorothy is now a fish-out-of-water high school student in rural Kansas, recently transferred to her Aunt Em’s farm after the death of her parents, presumably they lived in an urban setting. Her road companions now are all linked to Wicked Witch as victims and Ruffin throws in timely references to climate change.

Kyle Ramar Freeman, Nichelle Lewis, Wayne Brady, Phillip Johnson Richardson, and Avery Wilson in The Wiz.
Credit: Jeremy Daniel

Apart from those slow spots, Williams’ staging is efficient, moving the story along, but picking up the tempo would help tremendously. Jaquel Knight’s choreography has a fresh bent, particularly as the citizens of the Emerald City show off their moves at the top of the second act. This rousing sequence gives the show a much needed jolt. This Wiz has plenty of heart and courage, it could use just a tad more pacing.

The Wiz: April 17—Aug. 18. Marquis Theater, 210 W. 46th St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 16 mins. including intermission.

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