Theater Review: “The Wiz”: Not in Kansas Anymore

A delicious, comforting gumbo of a Wiz with all the right ingredients for an upbeat, entertaining evening (or afternoon) at the theater.

The Wiz. Music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls. Book by William F. Brown. Directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Music Director Allyssa Jones. Choreography by Jean Appolon. Produced by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, 2nd floor, Boston, MA, through July 1.

The cast of the Lyric Stage Company of “The Wiz.” Photo: Mark S. Howard.

By Evelyn Rosenthal

Anyone who’s seen the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz or read the L. Frank Baum book series knows it’s a story about a young girl trying to find her way home to rural Kansas from the fantastic Land of Oz. Though the 1975 all-black Broadway musical The Wiz was filled with music inspired by the popular urban Motown sound, Dorothy’s home remained in Kansas. Many will be more familiar with the 1978 film version starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, with a new script that turned Dorothy into a schoolteacher and Kansas into Harlem. Now, forty years later, the Lyric Stage Company and director Dawn M. Simmons have kicked the soulful musical up more than a few notches by transporting the action to New Orleans. Though home is still “Kansas,” the colors and sounds and culture of New Orleans permeate this high-spirited, beautifully staged production.

Unlike the farm where Dorothy lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in the 1939 film, her home in this “Kansas” has a yellow door with a green pattern evoking wrought-iron, and narrow columns typical of some New Orleans architecture. Recent Boston Conservatory MFA grad Salome Smith is an appealing and spirited Dorothy, with a lovely (though in the early going unevenly projected) voice. She’s the perfect wide-eyed foil for Addaperle, the show’s sassy Witch of the North. All flounces and feathers in a Mardi Gras mask and played with zest by Yewande Odetoyinbo, Addaperle is a hilariously inept magician who gives Dorothy the magic silver slippers and points her down the Yellow Brick Road. Odetoyinbo’s strong voice and sharp comic timing make her equally compelling in her second role as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West.

As for the companions Dorothy picks up on her journey, Scarecrow is engagingly played by Elle Borders; Steven Martin’s hip Tinman shines, especially on the bluesy “Slide Some Oil to Me”; and Brandon G. Green is very funny as the cowardly Lion with mom issues and an owl for a therapist. The always excellent Davron S. Monroe makes a wonderful Wiz, shifting easily from swaggering showman to cowering fake, and finally to pumped-up preacher in the funky “Y’all Got It!” (a pretty close musical cousin to Joe Tex’s “Show Me”). And Carolyn Saxon adds a little tenderness, both as Aunt Em, reassuring Dorothy of her love in “The Feeling We Once Had,” and as Glinda, Addaperle’s kindly sister witch, who helps the girl finally get home.

Damon Singletary and Davron S. Monroe in the Lyric Stage Company production of “The Wiz.” Photo: Mark S. Howard.

Also deserving of kudos is the outstanding ensemble. Propelled by Jean Appolon’s exciting African-based choreography, Soneka Anderson, Juanita Pearl, Pier Lamia Porter, Lance-Patrick Strickland, and Damon Singletary move through the show as everything from the Munchkins and Evillene’s oppressed subjects, the Winkies, to the tornado and the Flying Monkeys. They even “ease on down” as the Yellow Brick Road itself, with the help of yellow glow sticks.

One of the best things about this production is Amber Voner’s stunning costume design. The black-and-white African-inspired prints worn by the Ensemble, the Wiz’s gorgeous suits and shoes, and Glinda’s multicolored African-patterned gown and headdress are especially dazzling. In a video posted on Facebook, Voner notes some of the inspirations she drew from New Orleans culture—the voodoo-doll look of the Scarecrow, and combining elements of a “living statue” and a street musician in the Tin Man’s silvery outfit and makeup, as well as his “axe,” which turns out to be a handle attached to a saxophone (a nifty musician pun, “axe” being musician-speak for “instrument”).

Music director Allyssa Jones has added rootsy and even jazzy touches to the R&B-flavored score, including a sweet sax solo on “Believe in Yourself” by reedman Jim Repa, one of the band’s eight first-rate musicians.

What it all adds up to is a delicious, comforting gumbo of a Wiz with all the right ingredients for an upbeat, entertaining evening (or afternoon) at the theater.

Evelyn Rosenthal is a singer specializing in jazz and Brazilian music, a freelance editor, and the former editor in chief and head of publications at the Harvard Art Museums. She writes about musical theater and music for the Arts Fuse.

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