I’m not here to give an impartial review. The Wiz is a cultural touchstone for me personally, like Star Wars or Superman The Movie. It means too much to me and I’ve got a personal investment in The Wiz. I share indelible memories with my contemporaries of my first Broadway show. My mother took my sister and I to the 1975 original production of The Wiz starring Stephanie Mills as Dorothy (who killed it as Auntie Em in this revival) I was only 7 but I knew then I was seeing something special. I had seen The Wizard Of Oz before and enjoyed it. However even at that young age music, sets and performances aside, I realized that an all black production was as unique a thing as all white productions were commonplace. Tiger Haynes TinMan, Ted Ross Lion & Hinton Battle as the Scarecrow were awesome to behold and for me, that afternoon was one of those handful of indelible days I always carry with me.
Whenever an opportunity arises to watch the 1978 adaptation starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson’s enduring Scarecrow we watch. So when I got the alert from my NBC app that The Wiz Live was starting I dropped everything, gathered my kids and for the next 3 hours “eased on down the road” with a new, absolutely fierce new Dorothy (newcomer Shanice Williams in a star making performance) and the rest of the amazing cast. I found myself singing along with familiar tunes and remembering how much I still love the music, myth and messages of The Wiz. NBC didn’t let me down!
NBC to their credit after some lackluster attempts at live musical theater with The Sound Of Music Live and Peter Pan Live showed the world the third time is a charm. From the eclectic casting choices to Atlanta native Derek Mc Claine’s incredible costumes and stage designs bring this unique vision of The Wiz to life. Shanice was AMAZING! 19 years old and born for the stage. Her Dorothy like most of the production was updated sweet and sassy but underneath was a soulful resonance to her renditions of “Home” which Stephanie Mills topped the Billboard charts with back in the day and one of my other favorites “Be A Lion” which she made her own. The Tornado brought to life by Cirque du Soliel was ornate and ingenious. Ne-Yo’s “Slide Some Oil To Me” as the Tin Man had his patented dabbing and nae-naeing mixed in with poppin’ & lockin but he also imbued his Tin Man’s personality with all the considerable style and grace the Grammy winner could muster. Elijah Kelly did a fine job as the Scarecrow but for me, it’s Michael Jackson’s role.
The night was full of surprises. David Allen Greer’s Cowardly Lion blew me away! I knew him as a talented comedian from Living Color and supporting roles but the Yale Drama School Alum belted out “I’m A Mean Ol’ Lion” with an energy that rivaled beloved Ted Ross in the Musical & ’78 film for me. “King” Latifah was another surprise. Her white and green pompadour and amazing sharp green suit was one of costume designers incredible achievements. Queen Latifah chewed up the scenery as the Wiz but also changed gears well when Dorothy & company get the peek behind the curtain at her true face as the lonely frightened Nebraska huckster and magicians assistant. Mary J. Blige as Evillene was another perfect match of actor & character. I loved her “No Bad News” her short stint running her over-the-top dictatorship and strutting about in an elaborate steam punk gown. Mabel King’s original Evillene is the one I still remember however. Uzo Abuba’s Glenda the Good was saving the best for last. I don’t think I can see her as “Crazy Eyes” again after her warm and powerful singing and her transformative costuming. She stopped the show. Period.
My kids like my wife and I love the arts. We’ve been to many Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. They are both aspiring dancers so watching my 8-year-old boy & my 6-year-old girl transfixed by the high quality of performances in a live televised broadcast starring an entire cast that looks like them, mirroring when I was a kid is no small thing. Viola Davis in her emotional Emmy acceptance speech nailed it on the head.
“Let me tell you something. The only thing that seperates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”
This remains important because black girls don’t get to see themselves positively on television that often. When black women like Ms. Williams find it difficult to find work in Hollywood or on Broadway that she represented black womanhood proudly through her talent made her performance an extra special treat. It reminded me of how remarkable it was that so many black actors and actresses were even employed that night. In 2015 the first Black Actress won an Emmy in a leading role yet some are calling this all black production “racist”? …Let that sink in a minute.
My daughter asked me breathlessly after singing and dancing to the final triumphant cords of Brand New Day “Daddy, when I get older could I be Dorothy on TV?” which fueled a great bedtime discussion on the importance of not only having dreams but having a plan and the courage to work hard to make your dreams realties. Ignoring the haters and the naysayers (and twitter trolls) using all the brains, courage and heart they have as these are things can’t be given. They are developed from within. Universal messages that resonate with all delivered through a uniquely black perspective are part of why I find The Wiz so enduring. This production of The Wiz Live will be brought to Broadway next year and I know I’ll be seeing it with my munchkins. If you haven’t seen it for yourself check the NBC App, On Demand or Hulu. You and your family will be glad you did.
all art~ NBC Universal