The lush strings and funky, “Shaft”-style grooves conjure memories of the Love Unlimited Orchestra, and the laugh lines might have been lifted from the Flip Wilson playbook, but “The Wiz” is retro mostly in the wrong ways. While the 1975 show that reinterpreted “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in an African-American vernacular has long been on musical theater pundits’ revival wishlists, this messy staging will likely prompt many to delete that entry. Lacking the joy, exuberance and emotional connection needed to overcome its pedestrian book, the show is a limp spectacle — a fantasy bereft of magic.
Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler are handicapped by the dated material, but their choices tend to heighten rather than camouflage the show’s flaws, almost making the grievous 1978 Sidney Lumet movie look acceptable. And with the positioning of the Encores! orchestra onstage, the playing space seems too cramped for such a dance-heavy, populous musical.
The choreography itself is a major glitch. It might have worked either to take a time-warp route, with cheesy ’70s disco moves, or to go in a more interpretive, less literal direction. Blankenbuehler instead hovers somewhere in between, injecting touches of breakdance and hip-hop into sloppily executed ballets that struggle with the storytelling demands of a tornado, the capture of Dorothy and her companions by winged monkeys or even the simple notion of easing on down the road. There’s invariably too much happening onstage, and most of it feels random and unpolished.
As with Blankenbuehler, Kail’s principal qualification is his experience on another ethnically specific musical, “In the Heights.” But the director grew with that show from its college presentation through an Off Broadway run to its final incarnation, working with the musical’s principal creator. Even on Broadway, however, “Heights” is a single-setting show about a finite group of characters who are presented in the opening number and evolve over the course of the action.
“The Wiz” is a crazy-quilt fairy tale, with multiple locations and fantastical new characters popping up at every turn. All that spins quickly out of Kail’s grasp, and the best he can do is string together William F. Brown’s episodic book, without building momentum or heart. The entire Western world knows the plot inside out, so coherence doesn’t really matter, but the holes in the storytelling are vast and inelegant.
Casting of two key roles is another misstep. Even before he’s unmasked as a phony, Orlando Jones brings an undersize presence to the seemingly all-powerful Wiz. So when Dorothy and her friends finally get an audience with him, it’s an anticlimax in performance as well as narrative terms.
And as the Kansas transplant itching to get home from Oz, pop singer Ashanti is sweet and pretty but rarely more than that. She handles her three big numbers confidently but tends to get screechy as they build. While Dorothy is traditionally a plucky motivating force, Ashanti is a passive bystander, spending much of her time onstage looking forgotten and underdirected, displaying less personality than Toto. It’s sad to think how much more nuance a gifted musical theater performer like Anika Noni Rose might have breathed into the role.
The show sparks to life to a degree with the entry of Dorothy’s sidekicks. Scarecrow (Christian Dante White), Tinman (Joshua Henry) and James Monroe Iglehart’s simpering yet sassy Lion all bring comic energy and endearing characterizations that make Ashanti’s Dorothy more appealing by association.
As inept good witch Addaperle and her wicked, aquaphobic counterpart, Evilene, Dawnn Lewis and Tichina Arnold, respectively, earn their laughs despite pushing too strenuously for them. Pouring on the grounded dignity and wisdom, LaChanze doubles effectively as Dorothy’s Aunt Em and Glinda. She invests real warmth into two of composer-lyricist Charlie Smalls’ luscious ballads, “The Feeling We Once Had” and “Believe in Yourself,” even if she’s unaccountably got up as Erykah Badu at the Grammys for the latter.
Paul Tazewell’s costumes are vibrant and busy, even if they do require guesswork (those are crows?). Ken Billington’s lighting similarly cranks up the color. David Korins’ opening set is a lovely farmhouse outline with a clothesline, a hill and a windmill, a homey picture dismantled by the twister to reveal an elevated orchestra stand made of tornado debris. Elsewhere, the design is less consistent, with solutions that run to billowing silk sheets or mystifying props (what are those giant lemon wedges being carried by Glinda’s entourage?), suggesting low-rent George Tsypin.
Music director Alex Lacamoire maintains the mid-’70s sound of Harold Wheeler’s original orchestrations, and Smalls’ pop-soul-R&B-gospel songs remain tuneful. But overall, 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 dialogue. And there’s not enough genuine feeling to sell its themes of self-reliance and inner strength.
It’s no surprise that the repurposing of L. Frank Baum’s story as a vehicle for proud black American identity had an impact three decades ago, but there’s since been no end of more adventurous cross-cultural appropriation. For “The Wiz” to work now despite its clunky book, it needs to beguile and dazzle, to liberate the audience from reality and compel them to share in its celebration of self-worth. The cast here goes through the motions of embracing that spirit in the Luther Vandross contribution “Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day).” But their jubilation feels hollow and their triumph curiously flat.