It’s been 117 years since L. Frank Baum wrote of Dorothy Gale and the magical, mystical creatures she encounters on her first journey to Oz in his beloved children’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. That initial story (and thirteen subsequent adventures), is now such a part of our pop culture conscious that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on the planet who’s unfamiliar. While it definitely shares familiarity, “The Wiz”, the urban retelling that debuted on stage in the mid-70s, offered a fresh look at an old favorite. In the same way the 1939 musical movie adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” widened the audience appeal of the original story, 1980’s film version of “The Wiz” also brought Dorothy’s newly cool trip down the yellow brick road to a larger fan-base. Under the direction of Tim Larson, Circle Players, whose 67-year history as Nashville oldest continuing theatre company rivals Oz’s history, is inviting audiences to ease on down the road once again as their production of “The Wiz” continues onstage at TSU’s Performing Arts Center with performances through Sunday, January 22.
Throughout Circle Players’ “The Wiz”, director Larson cleverly, visually pays homage to both film adaptations. Astute theatre-goers will no doubt pick up on the fact that in the opening scene on the Gale farm in Kansas, Aunt Em (Cordnie Brown), Uncle Henry (Barrett Thomas) and Dorothy (Kala Ross) are all dressed in black and white, a wink to the pre-Oz sequence in the 1939 MGM movie classic. The storm scene is conveyed in an equally creative manner with a visual of a twister’ being projected on the large screen backdrop as ensemble dressed in black members manipulate large cloths, whirling and spinning round Dorothy while Brianna Vasser and Carsan Lindsey twirl on aerial silks on either side of the stage.
Once in Oz Dorothy meets Addaperle (Pauline McGowan) and the Munchkins. I have to say, I absolutely loved the way Larson and company opted to portray the Munchkins. No little people, no kids. Instead the ladies of Munchkinland appear onstage seated on stools with casters which are, most part, concealed beneath oversized colorful sundresses, giving the brilliant optical illusion that they’re all about four feet tall. I have to admit, it’s one of my favorite moments of the show.
During “He’s the Wiz”, one of the show’s catchiest tunes, Addaperle explains “the world and the way things are” to Dorothy, the Munchkins ‘running’ circles around them, all the while. Those who may only be familiar with “The Wiz” by way of 2015’s “The Wiz Live!” on NBC will no doubt remember Jennifer Hudson’s show-stealing Addaperle. Well, guess what? McGowan is up to the challenge and while Addaperle’s magic may be a tad iffy, McGowan’s vocal skills are on the mark!
As Dorothy ventures down the yellow brick road on her way to meet The Wiz, she encounters the usual suspects. Up first is Chamberlin Little as The Scarecrow. Small in stature, but big in talent, Little nails not only Scarecrow’s signature song “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday”, but also his nimble, acrobatic dance moves and pratfalls.
Next up is Treston Henderson as The Tinman. Being a huge fan of the 1980 film, “Slide Some Oil To Me” is another moment I looked forward to with anticipation and Henderson does it justice. It’s during this number that I really remembered that the orchestration for the original stage production is quite different from the film. The film’s version of this tune, as performed by Nipsey Russell has a more singsongy vibe, while the stage version, as performed by Henderson seems somehow more heartfelt and purposeful, almost languid and careful.
Rounding out our foursome is Stewart Romeo as The Lion. It’s interesting that by the nature of his costume, Romeo is the only character whose face is totally obscured by a mask, but thanks to his powerhouse voice, he brings a fierceness to the role. By the time he finishes “Mean Ole Lion”, you tend to believe it. Of course, once again, we all know the truth bend the roar. Romeo also conveys the uncertainty of Lion’s timidity to regal results.
As our merry band of Wiz seekers continue their journey, there are a few missteps, production-wise. The “Kalidah Battle” just doesn’t come across as powerful as it could and “Lion’s Dream” and “Emerald City Ballet” just seem a bit lengthy a little awkward. “Emerald City Ballet” in particular just doesn’t have the excitement and feel of the original stage production or even the recent live TV event. “Emerald City Ballet” was originally intended to honor the late 70s/early 80s underground ball culture when groups of friends or ‘houses’ would compete by walking, often in drag, in an effort to be passable as a different gender or class. If only Larson had asked the ensemble to watch the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning”, or even Madonna’s “Vogue” video, as both celebrate the artform.
Minor faux pas aside, the show gets back on track as they travel on. Taking a cue from the film, when Dorothy and the gang finally arrive at The Wiz’ gated castle, His Wiz-ness is seen as a giant head projected on the screen. The visual effect is quite nice. Donald Carter is brilliant as The Wiz. His voice convincingly certain and powerful, his take of “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard” is everything a die-hard Wiz fan could ever ask for…even if his apparent recycle band uniform of a costume isn’t exactly fitting The Wiz.
Again, we’re all familiar with the story, so we know The Wiz instructs Dorothy and friends to set out to find and kill Evillene. Yes, I realize I’ve noted this song or that as a favorite moment, but believe me when I tell you Jamila Hunter as Evillene belting out “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” while she sits, rolls and steps on her underlings, is nothing short of spectacular. Short in stature, but gigantic in stage presence, voice and attitude, Hunter’s Evillene brings nothing but good news to the role. And you gotta love that her underlings are dressed in orange jumpsuits. That’s right! Orange is the new oppressed black. I can just hear Richard Pryor’s movie Wiz saying “Orange is the new color children, hit it”.
Spoiler Alert!: Evillene gets ‘liquidated’ and it’s time for “Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day)”. Then there’s The Wiz revealing to Dorothy et al that they’ve had the power to “Believe in Yourself” all along. Just when I’m thinking wait, I thought that was Glenda’s song, Glenda appears (in the form of Breanna Williams) to sing the more familiar version.
At show’s end, Ross, who’s been chiming in on reprises of “Ease on Down the Road” and other tunes throughout, gets to shine as brightly as Dorothy’s silver slippers (they weren’t ruby red until the 1939 technicolor film adaptation) when she brings the whole adventure literally and figuratively “Home”.
Circle Players’ “The Wiz” will continue with performances through Sunday, January 22 at TSU’s Cox/Lewis Theatre, the campus’ Performing Arts Center (3500 John A. Merritt Blvd. Nashville, TN 37209). Thursday-Saturday shows begin at 7:30 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Thursday performances offer a special $10 ticket price while all other performances are $20. CLICK HERE to purchase tickets. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 615.332.7529 for reservations or questions. Visit circleplayers.net for more details or to check out their remaining season. Follow Circle Players on Facebook and Instagram to keep up with the latest from Middle Tennessee’s oldest continuing theatre company.
If you’ve enjoyed this review of Circle Players’ “The Wiz”, be sure to check out my Rapid Fire 20 Q with the cast and don’t forget to subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook,Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler. Interested in coverage of your performing arts events, be sure and drop me a line at email@example.com.