Despite its status as a landmark show which proved that a musical with an all-black cast could win awards and make money — the original 1975 production won seven Tonys and played nearly 1,700 performances — The Wiz is hardly an example of a well-crafted American musical. Still, it became a cultural touchstone and has earned its indisputable place in musical-theater history. Charlie Smalls's Motown-influenced score is a lot of fun, but without a decent dose of glitz and magic in this Lyric Stage production directed by Dawn M. Simmons, The Wiz's flaws are thrust front and center.
Playwright William F. Brown took few liberties with his version of the story, putting it more in common with the 1939 film than with L. Frank Baum's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But The Wiz is far simpler than both. The goal, of course, wasn't to tell a different story — it was to tell the familiar story in a new way.
The story is familiar: a tornado carries Dorothy, a Kansas farm girl, to a faraway land where she befriends a scarecrow, a man made of tin, and a lion. She follows a path of yellow brick to the Emerald City where the Wiz — they're told — will be able to make all their wishes come true.
The timelessness of the many Oz stories are part of why they've demonstrated remarkable staying power — yet it's hard to fully remove The Wiz from the era in which it was created. This matters only in that Simmons's revival is set in 2018, yet the funky, vintage orchestrations still stand.
The other half of Simmons's concept is that Oz is essentially New Orleans. The appeal of such a concept presents hearty opportunities for racial, cultural, economic, and political commentary, to say nothing of the orchestral or design possibilities. Yet aside from incorporating some oil barrels into the set, a bit of voodoo, and some Mardi Gras colors for the character of Addaperle, there is no payoff to sending Dorothy and her merry gang to the Big Easy.
Salome Smith is a sweet Dorothy with a rich, soulful, and nuanced voice, and Elle Borders is a terrific Scarecrow, but it is Davron S. Monroe who gives the best performance as the man behind the curtain (or, in this case, the oil barrel). But the rest of cast struggle to develop compelling characterizations and, as a result, don't leave much of an impression.
The Lyric Stage is known for stripping down large musicals to their essential stories and presenting them in intimate, fresh ways, yet in doing so with The Wiz, it inadvertently rids the show of the magic that is so central to the story: Evilene's melting scene culminates in her merely running offstage screaming, while those famous stockinged feet protruding from underneath Dorothy's house are socks on two poles that a stagehand walks out and yanks back from view once Addaperle removes the silver slippers.
There are aspects of this show that do work, like the reimagining of the winged monkeys as glow-in-the-dark voodoo priests. Even then, though, the concept is inadequately explored and just barely brought to life.
The other fatal flaw of this production is Rachel Neubauer's sound design. The vocals all have a muted quality as a result of the cast being without microphones, and some of the orchestra is piped in through a speaker. This creates an odd imbalance between the orchestra and the performers. (A seemingly prerecorded Muzak version of "Emerald City Ballet" is a musical low point.)
The biggest assets of this production are Amber Voner's exquisite costumes and Jen Rock's lighting. Baron E. Pugh's two-tier set design suits the Lyric's space, but it doesn't even begin to conjure the wonder (or the color) of Oz.
After spending a little time in this Oz, I, like Dorothy, just wanted to go home.