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Critics chime in on ‘The Wiz’

Musical eases back down the road

Winner of seven Tony Awards in its 1975 premiere production, including musical and score, “The Wiz” originally ran for four years but has been absent from Broadway now for three decades, save for a short-lived and premature return in 1984.

The African-American reworking of L. Frank Baum’s classic fairy tale, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” has always been admired more for Charlie Smalls’ flavorful score than William F. Brown’s book. But as the biggest black mainstream musical of the 1970s, the show has long been in consideration for Rialto revival.

Des McAnuff’s hi-tech 2006 staging for La Jolla Playhouse was expected to land in Gotham, but early transfer talks fizzled. Hopes then shifted to the production that opened Thursday and runs through July 5 under the Encores! Summer Stars banner, the same series that launched the recent Tony-winning “Gypsy” revival.

Director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and music director Alex Lacamoire all earned plaudits for their work on “In the Heights,” but reviewers generally were cooler toward their reteaming on “The Wiz,” and few had much love for above-the-title leads Ashanti and Orlando Jones.

Here’s what the New York critics said:

  • “A fantasy bereft of magic” was how Variety‘s David Rooney described the musical. “There’s not enough imagination on tap here to make this ‘Good Times’-era artifact anything but a gaudy kids’ pantomime with quaint, jive-flavored sitcom dia-logue.”

  • The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood mostly slammed the show, calling it “bus-ily energetic yet full of dead ends” and dismissing Ashanti as “a pretty place-holder, an empty vessel in a sparkly dress.” He added: ” ‘The Wiz’ in the current incarnation seems to be forever aerobically on the move and yet always at a complete standstill.”

  • “The score constantly lifts up the show,” stated Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post. “Which is good, because this ‘Wiz’ needs major support.”

  • While noting standout performances by LaChanze and Tichina Arnold, Reuters’ Frank Scheck deemed the tuner unfit for Broadway, concluding, “This ‘Wiz’ doesn’t ex-actly make you want to click your heels.”

  • Newsday’s Linda Winer gave the show a mixed review, commending helmer Kail’s “invention and affection” toward Brown’s original book but acknowledging that the pro-duction’s Dorothy underwhelms: “Ashanti proves not be a natural theater actor, and, even more surprising, her silvery voice sounds thin and bland against the pros.”

  • Joe Dziemianowicz in the Daily News declared James Monroe Iglehart’s Lion “the evening’s standout,” suggesting that Kail’s lack of “concept or style to integrate the show into a cohesive story” was the musical’s biggest problem.

  • In a mostly positive review, Bloomberg’s John Simon called it “truly a show for all ages and all imaginable audiences.” However, he echoed the general consensus on lack-luster perfs from the leads.

  • The AP’s Peter Santilli gave one of the few unequivocally positive reviews, calling the musical a “lavish, well-balanced production” and thoroughly praising Ashanti’s per-formance: “With wide-eyed charm and a can’t-miss voice, Ashanti makes the role her own while distinguishing herself among a skilled troupe of singers and dancers.”

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