To call the La Jolla Playhouse production of “The Wiz” a mere revival is to understate the accomplishment of helmer Des McAnuff and his production team. They have rethought, rescaled and reshaped an uneven musical play of historical importance but modest virtues into a joyful, stunningly entertaining circus of spectacle, soul and heart. Despite a few easily fixed opening-night tech glitches, and some less-easy-to-fix weaknesses built into the 1975 original, “The Wiz” will thrill Southern California audiences for the next month — and don’t be surprised to see it ease on down the interstate to a hearty Gotham welcome sometime soon.
The physical wizardry of this “Wiz” comes as no surprise given McAnuff’s past mastery at marshalling state-of-the-art technology in the service of an emotional story. (Show makes his earlier techstravaganza, “The Who’s ‘Tommy,’ ” look like “The Gin Game.”) All of L. Frank Baum’s creatures, from witches and Winkies to Munchkins and Kalidas, are sent careening across, around, above and below Robert Brill’s exciting full-theater environment, which sends a runway between rows 7 and 8 and places spectators onstage, pulling aud firmly into the action and making it clear we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Paul Tazewell’s costumes are witty and stylish, and Howell Binkley’s rock-concert lighting and special effects are complemented by Michael Clark’s evocative projections. And whenever choreographer Sergio Trujillo seems to have reached the limit of variations on hip-hop or breakdance style, he comes up with yet another, culminating in the showstopping “Everybody Rejoice.”
But it’s the underlying conceptual thinking that serves to make this production so powerful.
Thirty years ago, it was significant that an all-African-American company would be assembled to translate Baum’s classic fantasy into the urban black vernacular. Tony-winning tuner brought out themes of self-reliance and believing in oneself that reflected the general assertion of racial identity at that time. Even then, however, the jokes in William F. Brown’s libretto were musty and Charlie Smalls’ songs left little impression. After a ploddingly literal 1978 movie version flopped, show seemed quaint and dated, and one understood why no major professional company was moved to revisit it.
However, over the same 30 years, pop culture has become a true melting pot: Hip-hop, salsa and techno are no longer “theirs,” but part of everyone’s beat. And the need to face an uncertain future fearlessly is shared by all. “The Wiz” remains a collage of contemporary slang and imagery, but La Jolla’s is a multicultural collage in which Baum’s themes speak to the broadest possible audience. Unquestionably, the humor and the heartbeat of the piece remain African-American at their source, but the overall effect is pluralistic and inclusive. In the truest and most positive sense of the phrase, McAnuff’s show is color-blind.
Every alteration from the 1975 original, inspired by the central multicultural concept, is salutary. Brown’s almost wholly rewritten script is tart and funny at last. Smalls’ score — supervised by musical director Ron Melrose and original orchestrator Harold Wheeler — sounds fresh and contemporary, with the “Stomp”-like arrangement of “Slide Some Oil to Me,” performed by Michael Benjamin Washington’s hilarious Tinman, a special highlight. His original first-act closer “What Would I Do?,” a puzzling solo that made one wonder why no one else got a song, now takes in the Lion, Scarecrow and Dorothy to become a gorgeous R&B ballad beseeching the Wiz’s aid.
Any “Wizard of Oz” stands or falls on its Dorothy, and this production has both a Dorothy and a Toto for the ages. With the voice of an angel and strong acting chops, Nikki M. James is no weepy Nellie, but a confident young lady with good sense. (The satellite dish atop her farmhouse tells us she doesn’t have to dream of what’s over the rainbow: she’s seen it on CNN.)
As for Toto, in a brilliant stroke, arrival in Oz turns the pup into a two-legged street dancer (Albert Blaise Cattafi). He gets no words, and needs none. In this amazing, enthralling performance, his panting and playful leaping embody the self-reliance, courage, and loyalty for which the main characters are all searching.
The witches of “The Wiz” go the MGM version one better. With scatterbrained Addaperle (the amusing Heather Lee), Good Witch of the North, assigned to suggest a trip to the Emerald City, sister Glinda’s appearance is held back, as in Baum, to make her the deus ex machina for Dorothy’s ultimate return. But Valarie Pettiford, doubling as Aunt Em, is worth the wait as she delivers a smashing pop-diva rendition of “If You Believe.”
Poured into a yellow jumpsuit with devil’s wings, E. Faye Butler’s Evillene boasts the stature of Wanda Sykes and the voice of Moms Mabley. A credible threat to our heroes, Butler may rival and even eclipse the witchery of the sainted Margaret Hamilton once she corrects some inaudibility of lyrics and dialogue.
Most conspicuous symbol of inclusiveness, and most daring conceptual choice, is the Cowardly Lion, whose flouncing gives new meaning to “friend of Dorothy.” The movie’s Bert Lahr was fey, but Tituss Burgess takes the character toward Angel in “Rent.” Still, there is no condescension or foolishness in this turn. When he and Dorothy team on “Be a Lion,” climbing the catwalks and gaining courage with each step, it becomes an anthem to human dignity on the order of “I Am What I Am.”
Curiously, two strong characters in the 1939 film have the least impact here. The Scarecrow (likable Rashad Naylor) fades into the background once he’s introduced in his triumphant “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday.”
The Wiz himself is more problematic. He first appears not as an enormous disembodied head but as a fairly ordinary fellow who, despite vocal amplification and an imperious air, fails to justify his billing as “Oz, the Great and Terrible,” especially as played by the gentle David Alan Grier. It’s hard to believe in his iron-fisted command of Emerald City, or the threats that send our heroes off to kill the Witch.
Worse yet, seeing him in human form in the first act diminishes the power of the reveal in the second. Since we’ve already seen the Wiz for what he is, we don’t feel the four friends’ crushing realization that they have fallen victim to a humbug. For the only time in this production, one needs to reflect on the MGM movie to tap into the emotionality of a key scene.
“Oz” devotees will appreciate McAnuff’s conclusive answer to the most vexing perennial question: Why is Dorothy so insistent on leaving Oz and going back to Kansas? For all its visual and aural delights, McAnuff’s Oz is an ominous and unwelcoming place, not unlike the outside world it’s meant to reflect. By contrast, Aunt Em’s warmth in her opening duet, “The Feeling We Once Had,” establishes a bond of love with her niece that resonates throughout the action.
In final tableau, there’s nothing much left of the Gale farm. (The house was lost in the tornado, remember?) Dorothy and Toto join her aunt at the water pump, and Uncle Henry (Orville Mendoza) wanders in to envelop them all in a massive embrace as the music swells. Perhaps for the first time ever in “Wizard of Oz” history, we’re truly persuaded that there’s no place like home.