Ashanti and James Monroe Iglehart in The Wiz
(© Robert J. Saferstein)
Ashanti and James Monroe Iglehart in The Wiz
(© Robert J. Saferstein)
With its Summer Stars series, City Center's Encores! ups the ante on its usual low-key production values, and there's been no stinting on them for its revival of The Wiz, the 1975 African-American musical version of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz.. And as it happens, though, the old adage about leaving a musical humming the sets proves all-too-true true of director Thomas Kail's uneven production of the show, thanks to the superb work of designer David Korins and compatriots Paul Tazewell (costumes) and Ken Billington (lighting).

Korins' framework for the Kansas farmhouse that's blown away by a tornado shatters with amazing grace and beauty (with some assistance from the dancers performing Andy Blankenbuehler's frequently clever and surprising choreography). When Dorothy (Ashanti) and her pals -- Scarecrow (Christian Dante White), Tinman (Joshua Henry) and Lion (James Monroe Iglehart) -- stumble upon the poppy field that threatens to put them all into an opiate-induced sleep, a swath of green fabric transforms with a lithesome group of dancers whom Tazewell has clad in green leotards with wispy red headdresses. The yellow brick road which Dorothy and company follow on their journey to the Emerald City, where The Wiz (Orlando Jones) resides, comes to the stage with gleaming brilliance as a series of arced yellow lights descend from the flies and Billington bathes the stage in a warm tawny glow.

Under the circumstances, it's difficult not to wish that Ashanti provided a similar luminescence. The young R&B star has a powerhouse voice that's well suited for Charlie Smalls' songs; but the gusto which she displays while singing rarely carries to the show's book scenes, where her work is sweet but unremarkable. Thankfully, Dorothy's compatriots are more engaging, particularly White's rubber-jointed and often hilarious turn as Scarecrow; he seems to channel Ray Bolger from the MGM film and Eddie Murphy simultaneously. Equally impressive is Henry, who brings a heartfelt smoothness to Tinman's lush ballad "What Would I Do If I Could Feel?"

This motley crew meets a host of colorful characters during their time together, most notably a trio of witches, each of whom gets her moment to shine. Tony Award winner LaChanze provides an almost beatific turn as Glinda (and also turns in a particularly warm portrayal of Dorothy's Aunt Em as well), while Dawnn Lewis offers a cloyingly campy portrayal of Addaperle, and Tichina Arnold commandingly blends Tina Turner's brazenness with Bette Davis' bitchiness as Evilene.

Jones initially underwhelms as The Wiz, although later in the production when he reveals his inner preacher, the actor's work becomes remarkably more vibrant and almost galvanizing. It's at this moment that some audience members might find themselves wishing that William F. Small's book allowed The Wiz to introduce "If You Believe," (now sung by Glinda) as was originally conceived -- particularly as it would better prepare theatergoers for the overly jokey manner in which the quartet's wishes are granted.

Throughout the production, the orchestra, under the guidance of music director and conductor Alex Lacamoire, gorgeously conveys and supports the diversity of Smalls' score, which isn't simply rock music, but rather draws on such traditions as New Orleans jazz and old time Broadway even as it borrows from pop idioms of the mid-1970s. It's the tunes -- along with the show's visuals -- that audiences will most likely carry with them as they ease on down the road back home.