Revival of The Wiz recalls original success

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Carol Sorgen

Thirty-six years after The Wiz hit the stage for its world premiere at Baltimore’s Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, the award-winning musical is back in Baltimore, this time at Center Stage.

The Wiz brings the same sense of energy and good cheer that led it to an initial Broadway run of 1,672 performances, seven Tony Awards — including Best Musical— and five Drama Desk Awards.

The Wiz is a retelling of L. Frank Baum’s classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, from an African-American perspective. The groundbreaking production was one of Broadway’s first to feature an all-black cast — and to be popularly accepted by a mainstream audience. The current Center Stage production brings The Wiz into the 21st century, but not by much. Several contemporary references and sight gags let the audience know that they haven’t completely stepped into a time machine. But for the most part, the show is indeed a return to the era in which it began — which isn’t really a bad thing.

Powerful voices

Without a doubt, the high points of the show are the powerful voices of most of the cast. Center Stage veterans Kingsley Leggs and Angela Robinson, who play The Wiz/Uncle Henry and Glinda/Auntie Em, respectively, display the vocal prowess that they have shown not only in Baltimore but on Broadway as well, most recently in The Color Purple.

Gwen Stewart, another Broadway veteran, plays to the hilt the roles of both the evil Evilene and her not-so-evil sister Addaperle. Stewart is well-known for her moving solo “The Seasons of Love” in the original Broadway production of Rent.

Mel Johnson, who has appeared in Hot Feet, The Lion King and Eubie!, among other Broadway shows, makes for an endearing Tin Man. A Baltimore connection is provided by several local performers, including Kristen Dowtin as Dorothy and Eric B. Anthony as the Scarecrow. Both have appeared on Broadway as well, Dowtin in The Lion King, and Anthony in Mary Poppins, Hairspray and The Lion King.

From a vocal standpoint, Dowtin can’t match the power and range of the other performers, but her portrayal of the daydream-driven Dorothy was sweet and believable.

Less successful were the dance productions, especially the “Tornado Ballet.” The ensemble work was ragged, and the dancers’ technique didn’t come close to rivaling that of the vocal performers. But since dance isn’t really the star of the show, that’s a minor quibble.

A Wiz for this century?

While many critics have called more recent revivals of The Wiz “dated” and have suggested making the music more current, I have no problem with the score as it is— and it appeared the capacity crowd on opening night didn’t either.

The music may not seem as contemporary as what you’ll hear in new musicals today, but after all, this is a revival, and part of the charm of a revival is revisiting the past. That being said, one wonders if the show could perhaps be updated to be more racially and ethnically diverse. While the original production brought African American culture to the predominantly white theater-going audiences of the ‘70s, in a city as diverse as Baltimore, has the time come for The Wiz to become even more color-blind?

Nevertheless, this is a jolly-good-time production and well worth an evening out.

The Wiz continues at Center Stage through Nov. 9. The theater is located at 700 N. Calvert St. in Baltimore. Tickets for The Wiz range from $10 to $60 and can be purchased through the box office, (410) 332-0033, or online at www.centerstage.org.