When we watch a performance, our minds and intellects can be caught by different elements. Sometimes I am more interested in how a script works, or doesn’t work, than I am by the specific talents of the actors onstage. This was the case as I sat down to watch The Wiz at CENTERSTAGE last night. I don’t have many complaints about the performers themselves, and most of the ones I do are the fault of the material (for instance, Gwen Stewart’s Wicked Witch just seems mean instead of actually evil). Many of the performances are strong, vocally the production is stellar, if over-miced (another problem that is not the fault of the performers). In short, Eric B. Anthony and Wayne M. Pretlow in particular give energetic performances as the Scarecrow and the Lion. Kristen N. Dowtin has a lovely voice as Dorothy, and she plays the role sweetly, but she spends the whole musical slightly hunched, arms bent at the elbow, palms facing upwards.

But like I said, I found myself less interested in how these actors were playing the characters, and more interested in how the script portrays the characters, in what this musical is trying to be, and how much it seems to fail. The whole night there was something about the tone that just felt off. Taking this cultural myth and translating it into an African American musical idiom naturally suffuses the work with joy and energy. But the production at CENTERSTAGE felt heavy. The set was lined with scaffolding (that for no reason I could deduce raises and lowers between every scene), the lighting was dark, the colors of the costumes were dull. It really kept the show from clicking. Having never seen this stage musical before, I don’t know how much of this is suggested by the script, and how much is the choice of the CENTERSTAGE design team. Part of what makes the show feel heavy is the urban aesthetic used for the land of Oz. For instance, the Tin Man is found in a WM dumpster. Now the movie of The Wiz takes place in an urban landscape, but it starts there. In the film, Dorothy is a 24-year-old school teacher living in Harlem. So Oz as a re-imagined New York City makes sense. But in the stage musical of The Wiz, Dorothy is still a young girl living on a farm in Kansas, so this urban setting comes out of nowhere.

The Wiz also makes the mistake of banking of The Wizard of Oz. What I mean is that instead of taking the story as inspiration and transforming it into something new, the musical relies on the fact that its audience will know the story and characters already. There are 22 songs, compared to less than 15 in the MGM film, and in The Wiz we get songs instead of character and plot. Moments seemed skipped over in a hurry, and even the songs don’t really tell us more about these characters. And if when there is dialogue, the book is confused. It wants to create its own version of this story, but all of its humor comes from making fun of itself. At one point, the foursome tricks the gatekeeper of Oz and he says, “I fall for this every night!” It’s the only instance of meta-theatre and it comes two-thirds of the way through the show. That’s sloppy writing.

The book of The Wiz also lacks emotional impact. When Dorothy is finally returned to Kansas, she finds Toto, runs off with him, and the show is over. She has no reunion with her Aunt and Uncle, no learned appreciation for family. In the original books by Baum, Oz is a real place. In the MGM film, Dorothy has had a very long dream. The Wiz doesn’t seem to choose one of those or any other option, leaving you with only a vague understanding of what you’ve just seen and making you wonder, “What was the point?”

This is definitely a case where I am interested in hearing from everyone else – particularly those of you that have seen The Wiz elsewhere, or even the film. Let me know how you think the material works or doesn’t work. Did you think CENTERSTAGE hit the right tone, or did they miss the mark?

The production itself I’ll give 3 stars, but I wasn’t so much a fan of the material
Through November 7


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