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Ease on Down the Road With The Wiz

Ford's Theatre brings a joyful production to the stage.

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Christopher Michael Richardson (Lion), Ines Nassara (Dorothy), Hasani Allen (Scarecrow), and Kevin McAllister (Tinman) in The Wiz, directed by Kent Gash, at Ford's Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

When it opened in Baltimore in 1974 and moved to Broadway in 1975, The Wiz was immediately a success. It won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and it has had an endless number of international productions since then. A retelling of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, composer-lyricist Charlie Smalls and book writer William F. Brown transformed L. Frank Baum's classic children's story into a beloved example of 1970s black culture. Now, Ford's Theatre is putting on its own version of The Wiz. With the exception of a few details, the musical is as infectious as ever and the story has just as much charm as Baum's original.

The Wiz begins in Kansas, with Dorothy chasing after her dog, Toto. A pale blue, two-story house is flanked by rows of corn. Dorothy's Aunt Em brings in the clothing from the clothesline, since ominous rumbles of thunder signal an approaching storm. After the storm hits, only the top of Aunt Em's house remains visible, upside down, and Dorothy has been transported to Munchkinland. There, Dorothy meets Addaperle and the Munchkins, who advise her that to return home, she must follow the Yellow Brick Road, seek the Wizard of Oz, and beg for his help. Along the way, Dorothy meets a Scarecrow who lacks a brain, a Tinman who wants a heart, and a Lion who has no courage. Together, the four proceed to Oz to seek the Wiz and ask him to grant what they need.

Although not the strongest actor in The Wiz, Ines Nassara knows how to belt a number, especially the final "Home." She energetically demonstrates Dorothy's sympathetic side, impetuously inviting three strangers on her journey. Hasani Allen, who plays Scarecrow, is a brilliant dancer with a super-flexible body that seems to be made of rubber. His clear tenor voice is a nice fit for the song "I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday." Kevin McAllister is delightful in the role of Tinman, who comes to life when Dorothy gives him a few squeezes of oil. McAllister is a smooth singer and proves to be an exceptional dancer, as illustrated by his post-oil tap dance. Christopher Michael Richardson is a gigantic presence as the Lion. He's entertaining when pretending to be brave and when honestly showing his cowardice. Jobari Parker-Namdar is a marvelous Wiz, dressed in long, vivid satin coats, his curls circled by a headband. Costume designer Kara Harmon pictures the Wiz and the citizens of Emerald City as energetic participants in a psychedelically colored after-party circa 1974.

Directed by Kent Gash, this Wiz depends on color, speed, and the dynamic work of eight musicians, conducted by Darius Smith. Choreographer Dell Howlett makes sure that the many primary dancers — from "Tornado" (DeMoya Watson Brown) to "Lead Winged Monkey" (Daryl Spiers) — are all first-class performers. One of the most entrancing elements of this production is the way Gash makes a fairly small cast appear to be four times its size by double-casting several roles. The extremely versatile ensemble appears as the Yellow Brick Road, Winged Monkeys, Kalidahs, the People of Emerald City, and even sexy Poppies. One particular standout is Monique Midgette, a talented actor who plays Aunt Em, Addaperle, and Evilene with three very distinct personalities.

Scenic designer Jason Sherwood keeps that upside-down roof of Dorothy's home ever-present, no matter how far away she is. Sherwood's set moves from Kansas to Africa. Unfortunately, Clint Allen's occasionally baffling projections don't quite support the locations as they should.

With both elements of magic and a positive message about believing in yourself, The Wiz is a perfect show for families with children. The fact that its message is delivered through such vibrant tunes — embracing a wide range of styles including jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, rock, and soul — and outstanding dancing makes this Wiz a production that will make everybody rejoice.

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