City Center Encores! offers a visually sumptuous but otherwise uneven production of the 1975 musical version of The Wizard of Oz.
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.