Review co-written by Herb Merrick and Lynne Menefee.
Hold on to your hats! A tornado has hit Baltimore and this one is staying for week! Coming full circle, the revival of “The Wiz” is making its world premiere after its original, ground-breaking debut almost 50 years ago in Baltimore (It opened on October 21, 1974, at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre)—and brings with it a “brand new day.” Like its predecessor, inspiring so many young people of color, it is a showcase of Black culture and talent with universal themes. This production is not just a revival of the original Broadway production (which won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical), it is a completely revamped production with, again, an all-Black cast and creative team. There was so much buzz and anticipation, that the show sold out out before it opened. It has already found its home on Broadway after it finishes its tour around the country, debuting on April 17, 2024 at The Marquis Theatre.
If you missed the show in Baltimore, you must ‘ease on down the road’ to Broadway to see this incredible, theatrical experience, sure to win many awards and accolades.
The entire creative team is bursting with talent. Adapted from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum, with a book by William F. Brown, music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls, this production of “The Wiz” has additional special material by comedian/writer Amber Ruffin; new musical arrangements and orchestration, combining jazz, R&B, blues, gospel, funk, and soul, by Joseph Joubert (“The Color Purple”); choreography (featuring contemporary jazz dance, ballet, street dancing, and even a dance off among the citizens of the Emerald City) by JacQuel Knight (Beyoncé’s choreographer), and direction by Schele Williams (“Motown: The Musical”). Extra added delights include glorious, new scenic designs by Academy Award-winner Hannah Beachler that show the same detail and thoughtful references to Black and African culture found in her work for “Black Panther” and complemented by the stunning, eye-popping projection designs of Daniel Brodie. The costumes by Emmy Award-Winning and Oscar-Nominated Sharen Davis simply dazzle.
Despite a half hour delay due to a power outtage, the audience and the whole evening was full of joy and energy, extended applause, and standing ovations. Virginia native and Tik-Tok sensation, Nichelle Lewis was chosen among couple of thousand hopefuls to play Dorothy (she does having touring experience in “Hairspray” among others). She has a beautiful voice and incredible range, though at times, her character felt a little detached.
Orphaned after the death of her parents, Dorothy is being bullied in her new school and raised by her Aunt Em played by Baltimore’s own and Broadway star, Melody Betts. Perfect as her loving aunt, Betts practically steals the show in her other role as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. She is bombastic, funny, fun, and wonderfully evil, with a voice that blows the roof off the Hippodrome.
After the tornado hits, Dorothy finds herself not in Munchkinland, but a place that has the feel of a New Orleans neighborhood, full of color and music. Glinda is played by another Broadway veteran, Deborah Cox, who bookends Dorothy’s adventure with two powerful songs (and the girl can scat!) There are no ruby slippers but silver shoes. Instead of an actual Yellow Brick Road, the path is symbolized by first four, then two, guards of Emerald City, bathed in yellow light who can be seen throughout the journey on the periphery.
Dorothy meets her soon-to-be companions, the Scarecrow (Avery Wilson), the Tin Man (Phillip Johnson Richardson), and the Lion (Kyle Ramar Freeman)—all scene-stealers in their own right, as they search for what they thought they lost. It’s a shame that the producers felt that perhaps the show needed a “name” in the role of the Wiz (Wayne Brady will take over the role on Broadway) because Alan Mingo Jr. is absolutely fabulous as the deliciously self-absorbed Wiz. Certainly not as likable as previous iterations of the Wizard, he is a con man and opportunist.
Gone is Toto, and the winged monkeys are replaced with Kalidahs (which were in the original Baum book) who serve the Wicked Witch. A climatic and familiar scene—when the Wiz helps the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion realize they had what they needed all along—has been changed. Though we understand the intention, it doesn’t have the same emotional impact.
Kudos must be given to the orchestra, led by conductor (and on keyboard) Paul Byssainthe, Jr., and the incredible ensemble who shined in every scene and dance number.
It is interesting to note this was Stephen Sondheim’s favorite musical and he said it best: “It’s the one show which makes you feel better when you come out of it than you did when you walked in.” It’s a shame it’s such a short run here where it all began. If you missed the show in Baltimore, you must “ease on down the road” to Broadway to see this incredible, theatrical experience, sure to win many awards and accolades.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
“The Wiz” runs through September 30, 2023 at The Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. For tickets and information on upcoming shows, please go online.