Friday, June 19, 2009

The Wiz


Music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls, book by William F. Brown. Dir. Thomas Kail. Chor. Andy Blankenbuehler. New York City Center. (CLOSED)

The nicest thing critics can say about Ashanti, who stars as Dorothy in City Center's revival of The Wiz, is that she is pretty and has a nice voice. They unanimously agree that she cannot act and feel similarly about Orlando Jones as The Wiz, but are grateful that the talented supporting cast makes up for the faults of the stars, especially LaChanze (Aunt Em, Glinda), James Monroe Iglehart (Lion), Christian Dante White (Scarecrow), and Joshua Henry (Tinman). Critics are less in agreement about Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography, which some consider a delight and others consider a mess, and Thomas Kail's direction, which some say highlights the faults inherent in the book. In general, critics refrain from bashing the production, as they still find it to be a fun time.

NYMag A+
(Michael Alan Connelly) Charlie Smalls’s score is still fun and funky, but the show’s greatest asset is Andy Blankenbuehler’s high-octane choreography, which includes elements of Savion Glover’s and Alvin Ailey’s work along with nearly everything in between.

Talkin' Broadway A
(Matthew Murray) No, "perfect” and this show - and, to some extent, this production - are not concepts that fit together easily. But by the standards of this new series, put on by the folks behind the Encores! concert stagings of older musicals, The Wiz is tops. It displays and delivers an energy, a completeness, and a commitment that neither of the previous Summer Stars outings, Gypsy in 2007 and Damn Yankees in 2008, showed. If there’s an unmistakable whiff of summer stock hurriedness about the whole thing - especially its game but less-than-ideal leading lady - the stakes are so low and the entertainment so plentiful that it seldom matters... Of course, the show has its share of construction problems. For all the build-up of the Wicked Witch of the West (here named Evillene), her menacing and dispatching are confined to only a few minutes of stage time. The second act is very short, yet crammed with musical numbers that don’t expand much on the action. (Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, gets two lengthy back-to-back showstoppers.) And there’s an unease to the overall assembly that suggests the creators preferred making alterations to making sure the outfit flawlessly caressed every contour. Even so, the show has been rendered quite well here, led by director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and musical director Alex Lacamoire (conducting the typically excellent Encores! Orchestra), all who also collaborated on In the Heights. They and set designer David Korins, costume designer Paul Tazewell, and lighting designer Ken Billington capture plenty of urban charm that highlights the danger and the wonder of the shabby-chic Oz in equal measure.

Backstage A-
(David Sheward) The team behind In the Heights—director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—create imaginative variations on Geoffrey Holder's original Broadway staging, which cleverly employed dancers and props to create tornadoes, flying monkeys, and the Yellow Brick Road. Kail and Blankenbuehler have much of the spacious City Center stage to work with. Set designer David Korins has ingeniously devised an upstage environment for the orchestra that incorporates Dorothy's windblown farmhouse and the exotic land of Oz. A chorus of athletic dancers and stylish singers, costumed with flair by Paul Tazewell, romp within this set piece and on the open downstage area, creating an urban version of Baum's fantastic journey. Music director Alex Lacamoire leads the orchestra in a spirited performance of Charlie Smalls' dynamic score. This joyful express train only slows down when the top-billed Ashanti and Orlando Jones stop singing. Both performers' lack of stage experience is evident in their inability to create through-lines for their characters.

Bloomberg News A-
(John Simon) Hats off to David Korins’s airy set design, whose rich inventiveness more than compensates for a modest budget. Paul Tazewell’s costumes exude good humor, and Ken Billington’s lighting seems to dance along with the hoofers. We rejoice in resisting the deceptive greens of the Emerald City and blush with guilty pleasure at the raucous reds of Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West’s domain. Most wonderful of all are the stunning flights of the soaring dancers, and the no less soaring harmonies of the near-ubiquitous chorus... The only letdown -- although a serious one -- is in the leads. As Dorothy, Ashanti sings pleasingly enough, but she isn’t much of an actress, her posture often listless and her expression a frequently frozen blank. As the Wiz, Orlando Jones (to be succeeded on June 29 by Colman Domingo) meets the required minimum, but is a far cry from the wizardry of Andre De Shields in the Broadway premiere and Richard Pryor in the otherwise misbegotten 1978 movie. Still and all, there is a good deal here captivating enough for an evening of much euphoria, staying with us for a return to our home almost as joyous as Dorothy’s to hers.

Entertainment Weekly B+
(Thom Geier) One of the chief pleasures is the tuneful music and lyrics of Charlie Smalls, a gifted melodist who died tragically young in 1987 at age 43. Songs like ''Ease on Down the Road,'' ''No Bad News,'' and ''Believe in Yourself'' are infectious enough to require a CDC bulletin. William F. Brown's book, which hews closely to L. Frank Baum's original story, has been given a few smart tweaks to downplay some of its '70s origins (and slang). As a result, the show feels less of a well-executed period piece a la Hair and more like a timeless story. But as contemporary as The Wiz feels, this production remains rooted in African American traditions: from tap dance to Alvin Ailey-style choreography, from gospel choruses to plastic barrels as percussion, from masks to seemingly homespun costumes.

(Andy Propst) 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... 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?"

Newsday B+
(Linda Winer) The impact of the slick, ambitious evening depends on one's affection for the musical, a middle-of-the-road, rock-and-soul extravaganza that already seemed old-fashioned, uneven and a little schlocky when new... Since Encores! requires an onstage orchestra and "The Wiz" requires lots of set changes, the relatively simple scenery is augmented with Paul Tazewell's witty costumes and with terrific dancers as visual storytellers. For example, the tornado is really twisting, spiraling limbs. The Yellow Brick Road is made of hanging lights. The Munchkins roll around on office chairs. Tichina Arnold, as the Wicked Witch of the West, nails the evil attitude with her down-and-dirty "No Bad News." But my heart belongs to James Monroe Iglehart's big mushball of a Lion, Christian Dante White's lanky rag-doll Scarecrow and, especially, Joshua Henry's elegantly singing, tapping Tin Man.

New York Post C+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Wheeler (now the equally inspired music director on "Dancing With the Stars") beams us back to a '70s wonderland of wacka-wacka guitars, explosive horns and Stevie Wonder-inspired keyboards. Energetically rendered by conductor Alex Lacamoire and a large orchestra, the score constantly lifts up the show... As Dorothy, Ashanti has a sweet voice that can turn powerful when required, but she sticks to the same expression -- blank befuddlement -- the entire time. Which is a problem since she's always onstage. Unable to work around this handicap, director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (reuniting after "In the Heights") have patched together a series of barely connected scenes, busy rather than kinetic. Blankenbuehler's moves, in particular, look like sloppy "Solid Gold" with an occasional limp hip-hop twist. But every time you start thinking there's too much Cheez in this "Wiz," someone in the supporting cast fires off a triple-cream turn.

The Daily News C
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Like the revival itself, the over-the-title R&B diva is hit and miss—a mighty singer with a voice that soars, but a limited actress whose face registers apprehension, delight, anger, whatever, with scarcely a shift in expression... That central miscasting aside, the bigger issue with this overwrought and unfocused staging is that the director, Thomas Kail (a Tony nominee for "In the Heights"), hasn’t come up with a concept or style to integrate the show into a cohesive story, something more than just a collection of colorful scenes.
Instead, he piles on production numbers by Andy Blankenbuehler, a choreographer who won a Tony for "Heights" but doesn’t know when to say when. His busy dances tend to upstage the singers. Pour enough sprinkles on a sundae and you won’t even taste the ice cream. Fortunately, you can’t keep a good score down and the lion’s share of Charlie Smalls’ pop and soul tunes are better than that. Harold Wheeler’s ear-tickling orchestrations have been overseen by musical director Alex Lacamoire, and the songs sound fun and fresh as ever.

The New York Times C-
(Charles Isherwood) The music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls retain an irresistible pop appeal. It may be easier to enjoy the production if you try to tune out the alternately sluggish and frenzied spectacle onstage and focus on the mostly able musical interpretations of the best songs. (The costumes by Paul Tazewell are a gaudy, glittery mixed bag, ranging from authentically fabulous to just weird.)... For all the energy and verve brought by individual performers to their big moments, the production never gains any real locomotion, notwithstanding endless amounts of kinetic choreography from Mr. Blankenbuehler for the many ensemble numbers. While ably performed by the agile dancers, much of it feels cluttered, empty of purpose and generically urban. Even Mr. Blankenbuehler’s moments of invention don’t pay off as you might hope. The first big number, in which a human tornado whisks away Dorothy’s home piece by piece, suggests a dance interpretation of “Extreme Home Makeover” as performed by the Solid Gold Dancers.

Time Out New York D+
(Adam Feldman) While The Wiz may have seemed sassy and liberating in 1975, today it seems like reheated blaxploitation. Under Thomas Kail’s scattered direction, some performers wither—such as Orlando Jones as the titular charlatan—while others manage to pop, including Tichina Arnold as the wicked Evillene, James Monroe Inglehart as the quavering Lion and LaChanze as the kindly, blue-turbaned Glinda. There are occasional flashes of cleverness, too, in David Korins’s set, Paul Tazewell’s costumes and Andy Blankenbuehler’s busy choreography. But mostly, the show makes you feel like Dorothy: It’s all very colorful, but you wish you could just go home.

Just Shows To Go You D+
(Patrick Lee) The tornado-sized vacuum at the center of this Wiz is pop star Ashanti, a pretty, pleasing-toned singer who has been pitilessly stunt-cast as Dorothy... With a void where its heart should be the musical, one slice after another of 70’s black-tastic retro, can’t amount to more than concert and dance pageant. As such it has two enormous virtues in its favor - the strength of the City Center Encores orchestra, and Andy Blackenbuehler’s electrifying, often thrillingly inventive choreography. To my mind, Blackenbuehler is one of the most interesting and exciting of the newer choreographers and a lot of his work here wows.

(Matt Windman) While this upbeat African-American retelling of “The Wizard of Oz” was a huge Broadway hit in the 1970s, it has not aged well. Truth be told, it’s more of a historic curiosity than a great musical. Its awkward combination of soulful anthems and throwaway jokes now plays out unconvincingly like a museum piece. To make matters worse, the Encores production, which is staged by the “In the Heights” team of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, is extremely bland. It lacks a coherent vision and is marked mainly by odd costume choices. While its athletic hip-hop choreography occasionally looks fabulous, it is just as often clumsy and derivative... But in spite of its flaws, “The Wiz” still remains modestly fun. As is the case with all Encores productions, a large and lush orchestra is on hand to give full effect to the score.

(David Rooney) The choreography itself is a major glitch. It might have worked either to take a time-warp route, with cheesy '70s disco moves, or to go in a more interpretive, less literal direction. Blankenbuehler instead hovers somewhere in between, injecting touches of breakdance and hip-hop into sloppily executed ballets that struggle with the storytelling demands of a tornado, the capture of Dorothy and her companions by winged monkeys or even the simple notion of easing on down the road. There's invariably too much happening onstage, and most of it feels random and unpolished. As with Blankenbuehler, Kail's principal qualification is his experience on another ethnically specific musical, "In the Heights." But the director grew with that show from its college presentation through an Off Broadway run to its final incarnation, working with the musical's principal creator. Even on Broadway, however, "Heights" is a single-setting show about a finite group of characters who are presented in the opening number and evolve over the course of the action. "The Wiz" is a crazy-quilt fairy tale, with multiple locations and fantastical new characters popping up at every turn. All that spins quickly out of Kail's grasp, and the best he can do is string together William F. Brown's episodic book, without building momentum or heart.

The Hollywood Reporter D-
(Frank Scheck) Neither William F. Brown's sketchy book nor Charlie Smalls' score has aged particularly well, though there are some decent numbers, the most familiar of which, of course, is the oft-reprised "Ease on Down the Road." The obviously low budget has resulted in a bland, abstract set design and hit-or-miss costumes. Although there are undeniably clever touches -- like the Munchkins being full-heighted performers rolling around on wheeled chairs -- other devices, like representing the Yellow Brick Road with yellow light bulbs, don't exactly evoke wonder. Kail's staging is decidedly underwhelming, and Blankenbuehler's eclectic and seemingly nonstop choreography -- incorporating influences ranging from hip-hop to Alvin Ailey -- never feels organic.

The Bergen Record D-
(Robert Feldberg) What might have been energizing in 1975 now seems tired, and borderline offensive: a presentation of a "white" story through stereotypical urban-black characters and jokes. (The Wiz responds to the Scarecrow's wish for a brain by handing him a GED diploma.) The book by William F. Brown hits the highlights of the L. Frank Baum story and classic MGM musical, but doesn't make much effort to connect them, which results in a show that is both casual and confusing. It's a flaw emphasized by director Thomas Kail, who was much more successful with "In the Heights." He lavishes attention on individual numbers, often making them great fun (although Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography is bland and joyless).

Wall Street Journal F
(Terry Teachout) The singing is terrific, but the songs sound like bonus tracks from “Great TV Themes of the ’70s,” and Andy Blankenbuehler’s busy but aimless dances never seem to go anywhere. Fans of Ashanti, the R&B star who is making her stage debut as Dorothy, will doubtless want to watch her do so, though I regret to say that she can’t act at all, not even a teeny little bit. As for the mighty LaChanze, who plays the double role of Aunt Em and Glinda, hiring her to appear in a show as stale as this is like hiring Willie Sutton to knock over a 7-Eleven.

NYMag A+ 14; Talkin' Broadway A 13; Backstage A- 12; Bloomberg News A- 12; EW B+ 11; Theatermania B+ 11; Newsday B+ 11; New York Post C+ 8; The Daily News C 7; The New York Times C- 6; TONY D+ 5; Just Shows To Go You D+ 5; AMNY D+ 5; Variety D- 3; The Hollywood Reporter D- 3; The Bergen Record D- 3; WSJ F 1; TOTAL: 130/17 = 7.65 (C+)

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