On Saturday, January 7*, Circle Players continues the second half of their 67th season with “The Wiz” on stage at TSU’s Performing Arts Center. Based of course on characters created by L. Frank Baum in the children’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, the story was then brought to a broader audience in the 1939 movie musical, “The Wizard of Oz”. “The Wiz” flipped the script in the mid-70s by updating the story and characters to tell a modernized urban tale of Dorothy in an all-black production originally titled “The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical ‘Wonderful Wizard of Oz'”. For my first Rapid Fire 20 Q of the new year, earlier this week I chatted with with the “The Wiz” director Tim Larson, as well as musical director, Bill Crimm and cast members Kala Ross (Dorothy), Stewart Romeo (Lion), Jamila Hunter (Evilene) and The Wiz himself, Donald Carter for a chance to pull back the curtain and get a little insight to their characters, motivations and why, after one hundred and seventeen years, we’re off to see the Wizard once again.
Rapid Fire with Tim Larson, director of Circle Players’ “The Wiz”
JONATHAN PINKERTON: From what I understand, you’ve been a fan of “The Wiz” as long as I have. From a director’s standpoint, what drew you to mounting the show for Circle Players?
TIM LARSON: Actually, I was not the original director selected to do this show but due to conflicts of the other directors that were offered the show Circle asked me if I would direct this show and I was elated to do so. Since Circle has an ongoing relationship with TSU and mounted shows there since 2012, “The Wiz” seemed a perfect production to include in this year’s season, and as a director I was excited to engage the young, emerging artists at TSU and other area universities and the community at large. I knew this production would show-off their talents and create a cohesive vision.
JP: Thanks to virtually everyone’s familiarity of “The WIzard of Oz”, I’d imagine there’s a certain responsibility to visually represent the characters, especially Dorothy’s traveling companions. Can you tell me a little about who’s doing makeup and wardrobe for the show?
TIM LARSON: Rachel Gallup is the costume designer and I knew she was the person capable of costuming this show. She did “Ragtime” and “Sister Act” with me in the past and has had experience with costuming “The Wizard of Oz” with another theatre company. She was able to seamlessly take my vision for “The Wiz” and implement it. We do not have any specific time period for the show. Obviously, Dorothy’s real world is current, but when you get to OZ I wanted a timeless look and have elements from today and yesterday. The makeup artist, Shay Nicole Puffett (another emerging talent) is doing a tremendous job! I think people will be surprised at some of the characters she has created. However, with the witches (especially Evilene) I did not want them to look like caricatures, as many productions do, but let their acting and facial expressions help to define their characters.
JP: One of my favorite moments in “The Wiz” is when Dorothy is reminded to “Believe in Yourself”. Who was the first person to instill that advice in you?
TIM LARSON: It was not until much later in life that this was instilled in me not by one person but by many who made me realize that I have talent– not only in theatre but also in my everyday life. If I were to choose one person that is a constant to remind me of this, it would be LaTonya Turner, the producer. She is always there to remind me to believe in myself and my gut instincts when doubt starts to creep in. I think every one of us can always use reinforcement to believe in ourselves, especially in the fast- moving, social media culture of today.
JP: What do you hope audiences will take away from “The Wiz”?
TIM LARSON: “The Wiz” as well as all its predecessors have many, many themes woven throughout the story. But I think it always takes us back to the gut of the story– that there is “no place like home” — and I hope the audiences walk away entertained, content and feeling at home with the ones they love.
Rapid Fire with Bill Crimm, musical director of Circle Players’ “The Wiz”
JP: You’ve worked with director Tim Larson before when you were musical director for Circle Players’ “Ragtime”. What’s it like to collaborate with Tim?
BILL CRIMM: Working with Tim is great! He is so well prepared with the shows’ history, and social implications. He gives clear directions as to what he’s looking for from all of us.
JP: While your working relationship with Tim goes back a few years, your familiarity with “The Wiz” goes back almost to the show’s beginning, with you having staged one of the show’s first community productions not long after its Broadway debut. Comparing that production to Circle’s current mounting of the show, what are some of the major differences you see working with Nashville’s oldest continuing theatre company?
BILL CRIMM: When I first performed the work, I held the work very close to what I learned from the original. I had a larger budget because of the newness of the show and general public interest. Tim is very aware of his budget and what he can do or not do while keeping the awe and magic of the show. Tim is true to the feeling of the show but has expanded it to be very inclusive of diversity and gender identification.
JP: Dr. Peter Fields is choreographing this production of “The Wiz”. How closely does the choreographer work with the musical director on a show like this?
BILL CRIMM: Dr. Fields and I have collaborated on many shows. He has a sense of what the demands of the singers are while ensuring the dances “pop” with excitement. He makes non-dancers look great on stage and the more seasoned dancers shine and sparkle.
JP: The original Broadway staging of “The WIz” contained twenty-six musical numbers (the 1984 revival, twenty-seven). The film adaptation cut a few numbers, I’m assuming due to time restraints. Does Circle’s production include all twenty-six musical moments?
BILL CRIMM: We are cutting 3 music numbers completely and making cuts in some of the songs. The essence of the songs and music is well balanced.
Rapid Fire with Kala Ross, Dorothy in Circle Players’ “The Wiz”
JP: Alright, let’s just start with my first thought when I heard you were cast as Dorothy in “The Wiz”…Your last name. Ross has more than one tie to “The Wiz”. Of course Diana Ross starred in the film adaptation. I guess most people remember that, but Ted Ross (no relation to Miss Ross) starred in the film as well. He played the Lion. That’s got to be a good omen, right?
KALA ROSS: Yes, I was hoping that the last name was a sign that I indeed was in the right place at the right time. Fortunately, I was and I am so honored to have been selected to play the role of Dorothy. Diana Ross and Stephanie Mills bare huge shoes to fill; however, I have found my Dorothy in this journey. I not only want the audience to remember my portrayal of Dorothy, but I would like to introduce them to the artist Kala Ross.
JP: As Dorothy, you get to perform one of the show’s most poignant songs, “Home”. In it Dorothy reflects on the place where she feels most safe. What does getting the opportunity to play Dorothy and perform that song mean to you?
KALA ROSS: First, I would like to start by saying that playing Dorothy was one of my dream roles. This experience has been nothing short of amazing. “Home” is actually one of my favorite songs to perform. Like Dorothy, I began to realize the irreplaceable value of Home during my journey to college. Once you’re out on your own, you wish nothing more to return to Kansas, or in my case, to my family in Georgia. Sometimes, it takes being pulled away from your loved ones to appreciate them. The beauty of Dorothy and I is that we discover that Home is inside of our hearts and that we have everything we need to survive and return. It is my hope that the audience begins to find Home inside of their own hearts as they take this beautiful journey with Dorothy.
JP: If you could choose your mode of transportation a la the witches in Oz, which would you prefer, Bubble or Broom?
KALA ROSS: I would chose to travel in the bubble just as Glinda the Good Witch. What intrigues me most about this mode of transportation, is knowing that I possess the magic to float through time while reminding those that I love that if they simply believe in themselves, they can attain their heart’s desires.
Rapid Fire with Stewart Romeo, Lion in Circle Players’ “The Wiz”
JP: The ferocious “I’m a Mean Ole Lion” is one of my favorite numbers from “The Wiz”. Then again, so is the more gentle “Be a Lion”. The two songs seem to remind us that we all have the choice to be brave AND meek. Which emotion are you more apt to express quickly?
STEWART ROMEO: I’m more prone to the brave side. I would describe my self as the energizer bunny always moving and having fun. I think bravery is important especially for people who wanna do what we do. You have to have a lot of courage.
JP: This is your second time to work with Circle, and director Larson. What’s it like to be part of the Circle family?
STEWART ROMEO: Circle Players is a really great company. I love working with them because there is a very nice community feel. When you’re in rehearsals, you’re in a professional environment with the feel of family and being able to be yourself with no judgment and massive support. Tim is also great. I love his directing style. He lets the actor play with the role while keeping in the margins of his view, and that margin is quite big. He is also a good friend and has always checked up on me when going through tough times. That also goes for most people at Circle Players.
JP: If you could sing any song in “The Wiz”, regardless of whether it’s a Lion song or not, what would it be and why?
STEWART ROMEO: It would probably be the song “Y’all Got It”. It’s such a fun song and it has such a soulful feel. I love songs like that with a good groove and fun tone. The way it’s done in the show is a really good way to get people up on their feet and moving and dancing. I’ve always loved songs that can make people dance and feel good.
Rapid Fire with Jamila Hunter, Evilene in Circle Players’ “The Wiz”
JP: Jamila, I’m not gonna lie. When I approached Circle board member LaTonya Turner about doing this Rapid Fire 20 Q, I told her I just had to chat with you, as Evilene is truly one of my all-time favorite musical theatre characters. How much fun are you having being the baddie?
JAMILA HUNTER: I love it she’s my alter ego sometimes. I love being in control as far as being bossy. Knowing no one can touch me because I’m the baddest.
JP: As Evilene, you sing “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News”, with starts with what some might consider my life lyric “When I wake up in the afternoon as it pleases me to do”….Let’s be real, as a college senior, what time DOES it please you to wake up?
JAMILA HUNTER: 12 o’clock or later is the perfect time to wake up when I have a off day or nothing planned. I can function better when I get 8 hours or more of sleep. (I’m a night owl).
JP: With Evilene’s on-stage time memorable but limited, you, like several other member of “The Wiz” cast play more than one role. What’s it like backstage, frantic or organized chaos?
JAMILA HUNTER: As an actor, I love to be organized!!!!! I make sure I’m prepared in advance so I won’t lose my focus or change my mood before the show. And if something gets frantic I can work around it and make it work.
Rapid Fire with Donald Carter, The Wiz in Circle Players’ “The Wiz”
JP: When I chatted with Kala, I noted the connection of her last name to the film adaptation of “The Wiz”. While researching to chat with you, I noticed you provided background vocals on Johnny Lang’s Grammy-nominated “I Believe”. In “The Wiz”, you sing “Believe in Yourself”. Coincidence or destiny?
DONALD CARTER: Destiny! I believe that everything we need to succeed in our lives, we already have. The cares and pressures of life weigh on us all and naturally we become discouraged and need to be inspired and reminded that we are strong, intelligent, and more than capable of accomplishing anything we put our minds to. We are taught in church that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. The song sung with Johnny Lang was about believing that you have what God says that you have, although you may not see it or feel it right now. “The Wiz” is about a group of friends in search of what they feel they lack in their individual lives. Towards the end of their journey, they realize that what they were searching for, they already had, which I feel mirrors the lives of many of us. Whether it’s the musical group “Journey” singing “Don’t Stop Believin'” or R-Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”, it’s the same message. Believing in yourself is important and vital for a healthy and successful life.
JP: So….The Wizard….a clever fraud? OR so insightful we underlings just do see the obvious?
DONALD CARTER: I don’t believe that The Wizard was just a clever fraud. After reading the script I learned that he too was in Oz searching for something, but unlike the friends, he allowed the fear of moving forward to keep him in hiding. Some of us in life are afraid of change and the unknown, so like the Wizard, we convince ourselves that we are content with our existing situation and environment. Ultimately the Wizard just wanted a place to belong and the opportunity to feel important. In his quest to achieve that he ended up in seclusion because he felt like he couldn’t live up to the expectations of the citizens of Emerald City. After meeting the friends he learned the valuable lesson of embracing his fears and his hang-ups. Interesting enough, within the dialog towards the ended he begins to refer to his flaws as being something beautiful. The last we see of the Wizard is him flying away in an attempt to return back home to Nebraska. Sadly, we don’t know if he actually made it. I guess we have to “believe” he did.
JP: Based on a story first published in 1900, adapted for film numerous time, most notably the 1939 musical, then retooled as “The Wiz” first for stage, then screen, and most recently as a live musical TV event, just what is it about “The Wiz” that keeps us returning to The Emerald City time and time again?
DONALD CARTER: I think we keep returning to Emerald City because of it’s positive message, the glamour, the music, and fantasy that each revision yields. It’s to my understanding that NBC has created a television series entitled “Emerald City” that retells the classic story yet again. Although it premiers on the night of our opening, I plan to record it. The message always stays the same, but each revision takes you on a different journey.
With that, my chat with the director and cast members of Circle Players’ “The Wiz” came to an end, but their journey down the yellow brick road to Oz is just beginning as the show opens Saturday, January 7* with performances at TSU’s Cox/Lewis Theatre, inside the campus’ Performing Arts Center (3500 John A. Merritt Blvd. Nashville, TN 37209). The show runs through Sunday, January 22. 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 latest edition of my recurring interview feature, Rapid Fire 20Q, CLICK HERE to check out some of my previous conversations and be sure 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.
*Please note: “The Wiz” was due to originally open Friday, January 6, but due to snow covering the yellow brick road (and all other roads in the Nashville area), the show will now open on Saturday, January 7.