Theatergoers won't have trouble easing on down the road of The Rep's newest production, "The Wiz." The musical's yellow brick road may have a few potholes, but viewers will be so enchanted by the song and dance, they'll barely notice.
"The Wiz" is a musical to its core, a truth that director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj honors with impressive dance numbers, ballad belting and a parade of flashy costumes. The story favors the 1975 Tony Award-winning Broadway hit to the 1978 film flop starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson (though M.J.'s Scarecrow is honored with a few subtle references). Revolutionary in its day, the stage show was one of the first big-budget successes to star an all-black cast, paving the way for later hits like "Dreamgirls." But it also took a traditionally white-as-rice tale and refashioned it to resemble modern black culture.
The Rep's production follows in this tradition, updating the story, which now takes place in present-day New Orleans (though, inexplicably, Dorothy still lives on a farm with a chicken coop). The action begins with uniformed school girl Dorothy (Carla Stewart) goofing with her friends. They reference Nicki Minaj, jabber in their cell phones, drop it like it's hot and practice their girl group-style shrill raps. They're stereotypical teen-agers — perhaps too stereotypical. The vignette elicits strained laughter from the audience, failing in its attempt to modernize Dorothy's character. An ensuing squabble and song with Aunt Em (Zoie Morris) are even more forced.
Luckily, the play escapes the restricting realm of reality and shows promise when a swarm of dancers take the stage. Using lengths of fabric, they bind, twist and toss Dorothy about the stage. It's a beautiful chaos, much like a real tornado, and lands our main gal into Oz. From there until the end, you'll barely want to blink lest you miss something.
Munchkins appear, a gaggle of synchronized speaking and moving tribesmen with topiary afros and sparkly spears. They also serve as a doo-wop chorus for Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North. Addaperle (Jennifer Leigh Warren) is a magician who teeters onto the stage in glittery pink heels and an outrageous outfit — pink and purple striped stockings, undersized top hat, and voluminous pink ruffle skirt. She's all giggles and sass, deadpanning that she'd "know those tacky panty hose anywhere" when she discovers her evil sister's lifeless legs protruding from under the tornado's debris.
The rest of first act is a blur of introductions and big, boisterous musical numbers. Dorothy follows the yellow brick road, personified by dancers in yellow patchwork costumes who kindly direct her towards the Emerald City. Along the way she meets three familiar friends.
Scarecrow (Nik Alexzander) is a slapstick comedy delight, falling from his perch in the garden and tumbling about the stage like a ragdoll, standing on two feet for just long enough to reference Michael Jackson (who played Scarecrow in the film) and his signature dance moves.
Tin Man (Tony Melson) sings the ragtime tune "Slide Some Oil to Me." It's a gem for those who love a good double entendre, with lyrics like "All those who don't have to lubricate, you sure have got it made." The heartless metal man builds up the "player" stereotype in a silly way, while Lion (Darryl Jovan Williams) is a more difficult beast to pin down. Rocking MC Hammer-style velour pants and a wild curly mane, the cowardly king of the jungle sounds a bit like another king — Elvis. He snarls as he sings, uses his tail as a microphone and delivers a hilarious Southern-accented monologue about the trauma of being an only cub.
These introductions are, without a doubt, the strongest section of the show. The Emerald City, however is a visual feast of costuming. Rafael Colon Castanera, The Rep's resident costume designer, outdoes himself.
Act two begins in Evilene's lair, where the Winkies — the people of the west whom she has enslaved — stoop and cower around her feet. Jennifer Leigh Warren appears once again, this time as the water-averse Evilene. Her wicked cackle is spot-on, and her drawn-out, scream-filled death is a riot. But the numbers have less consistency than those in the first half of the production. The winged monkeys' choreography starts to drag, and there is little tension when Dorothy and her friends are caught. They're barely acknowledged by Evilene, and trudge around, laboring alongside the Winkies until an anticlimactic struggle leads to Evilene's soggy demise.
Dorothy finally gets her chance to shine with "Home," a ballad worthy of Carla Stewart's powerhouse vocals (which could rival Jennifer Hudson's award-winning "Dreamgirls" performance, no doubt). In a soulful rendition that makes you wonder why "Home" isn't as ubiquitous as that other Dorothy-sung tune, "Over the Rainbow," Stewart delivers to the very last click of her heels.
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