That 1975 Tony award notwithstanding, “The Wiz” isn’t among the greatest of musicals, but practically speaking, it was certainly a shrewd choice for NBC’s third annual live extravaganza: Not only is it a family project, but its star-studded African-American cast created the prospect of attracting demographics that might have passed on the more-grounded-than-hoped-for “Peter Pan.” Graced with fitful acrobatics courtesy of Cirque Du Soleil, the production exploded with color and impressive vocal performances. Yet the producers still haven’t fully overcome the somewhat ironic challenge of how to make these live presentations consistently exhibit sparks of life.
Casting an unknown in the central role, as opposed to going with marquee leads, appeared to mitigate some of the live snark factor, and also offered a welcome sense of discovery. In terms of pipes, Shanice Williams more than held her own as Dorothy – no small feat, alongside the likes of Mary J. Blige, Amber Riley and Stephanie Mills (the star of the original Broadway production).
The network also shortened the duration by a helpful 15 minutes (frankly, 30 would have been even better), with the three-hour length having helped weigh down “Peter Pan.” That said, those bloated five-minute commercial pods throughout the telecast still made it such that the real way to enjoy “The Wiz Live!” was to watch it as “The Wiz, DVR-ed!”
There was obviously a lot to look at in terms of sheer spectacle, from the elaborate dance numbers to the occasionally surreal costumes. The Cirque connection, however, felt overblown, given its relatively modest contribution in terms of wires and stunts.
There were even a few modern additions, such as a reference to Eddie Murphy, doubtless designed to make it all feel more contemporary. But what still hasn’t been figured out yet, for this more jaded age, is how to replicate the live experience one enjoys when seeing theater through the distance-creating prism of TV. And while the “live” label should foster a sense of risk, these musicals have been so polished that the prospect of any significant glitches or stumbles appears slim at best.
As a consequence, the show dutifully went through the paces – assembling the Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley), Tin Man (Ne-Yo) and Cowardly Lion (David Alan Grier) – as part of Dorothy’s rather uneventful trip to the Emerald City. To its credit, “The Wiz” did yield occasional moments that managed to achieve genuine liftoff, from Williams belting out “Be a Lion” to the rousing rendition of the celebratory “A Brand New Day,” arguably the most show-stopping (and except for “Ease on Down the Road,” familiar) tune.
In the broad strokes, NBC’s commitment to this form is admirable, particularly for the vast swaths of the country that never actually venture near Broadway. Granted, the network might not ever replicate the alpine numbers “The Sound of Music” delivered – such novelties have a way of wearing off, especially with others getting in on the action – but there ought to be a place for watch-with-the-family events, especially as a prelude to the holidays.
Grading on a curve, “The Wiz” ranks as the most satisfying of NBC’s three efforts – an accomplishment, since it’s hardly on a par with “The Sound of Music” on the honor roll of classic musicals. Yet for a story that begins with a house falling out of the sky, this third attempt to ease Broadway into primetime was again marked by a sense that, in this format, it’s very difficult to completely bring the house down.