Nikki M. James and company in The Wiz
(© Kevin Berne)
Nikki M. James and company in The Wiz
(© Kevin Berne)
It's been over 30 years since a hip Dorothy first landed in an all-black Oz in the musical The Wiz. Now, director Des McAnuff and his team at the La Jolla Playhouse have re-imagined the Tony Award-winning show for the new millennium with a multi-cultural cast and other modern updates. For example, Aunt Em's farmhouse here comes with a satellite TV dish, the Tinman is comprised mostly of junked computer parts, and the Lion is a bag person. But amidst all these new trappings, The Wiz has lost its heart, soul, and magic.

Willliam F. Brown has updated his book for the musical with lots of current street lingo and jokes about emergency rooms and ADD. The production is as high-tech and dazzling as can be, thanks to Robert Brill's scenic and environmental design, Paul Tazewell's colorful but often odd costumes, Howell Binkley's blinding lighting, and Peter Fitzgerald's souped-up sound. But less would have been much more; the show is so over-produced that the human element gets lost in the razzle-dazzle. (On Wednesday night, the cast had to begin the performance again after the tech crew solved the annoying problem of "white noise" at the top of the show. Later, the need for a computer reboot of a keyboard before the start of the second act contributed to a 35-minute intermission.)

Charlie Smalls' award-winning score -- even with new musical direction, vocal arrangements, and incidental music by Ron Melrose -- is the show's saving grace. Here, the soft-rock melodies sometimes roll over into hip-hop, but the score still snaps, crackles and pops. The cast is in great voice, from the charming Nikki M. James as Dorothy right on down to the lowliest Winkie. James really delivers throughout the show, and her singing of the finale, "Home," deservedly brings down the house. Valarie Pettiford's Glinda is a vision of a Follies Bergere showgirl, and she makes "If You Believe" into a true power ballad. Heather Lee milks all the comedy from her brief role of Addaperle, the inept witch with ADD. On the male side of the equation, Tituss Burgess is a crowd pleaser as the cowardly, sissified Lion, and he and James have the right chemistry to sell "Be a Lion." David Alan Grier's Wiz is better in his quieter moments than his louder ones, while Rashad Naylor's Scarecrow and Michael Benjamin Washington's Tinman don't make much of an impression.

For all its 21st-century innovation, the original production's swirling black drape of a tornado had more theatricality than anything on display in this new version, which looks like it consists of bits and pieces of other Broadway shows. The swirling cows, pigs, and grass during the tornado recall The Lion King, and the Munchkin trios -- each a human with two puppets at his or her side -- remind one of the cheerleaders in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The cast often eases on down the road that extends into the audience on ramps and platforms, as in Harold Prince's revisionist staging of Candide -- although here, at least, the audience can watch the action on big-screen monitors above the playing area when sight lines are an issue.

Add some Cirque du Soleil-like aerialists, a break-dancing, roller-skating Toto (Albert Blaise Cattafi), and an over-amplified Evillene (E. Faye Butler) who wears out her welcome long before her first real scene. What we have here is a mess of a show trying to pass as a hopped-up rock concert. This Dorothy would have been better off getting into that storm cellar with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry rather than venturing into McAnuff's strange new world.