Stage Review

The Wiz (2009)

Ashanti, The Wiz | The Wiz: Ashanti and James Monroe Iglehart
Image credit: Robert J. Saferste
The Wiz: Ashanti and James Monroe Iglehart
EW's GRADE
B+

Details Lead Performance: Ashanti; Director: Thomas Kail; Genre: Musical

Hair is not the only relic from the era of bellbottoms and youth activism to be enjoying a revival on stage right now. The Wiz, the 1975 all-African American retelling of The Wizard of Oz that enjoyed a long Broadway run (and endured a notorious 1978 big-screen flop starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson), is back. And thanks to director Thomas Kail's ingenious staging and Andy Blankenbuehler's lively choreography, it's a technicolor celebration of the imagination that is utterly captivating and Wickedly fun.

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.

Pop singer Ashanti holds her own as Dorothy, particularly in solo numbers performed, American Idol-style, downstage center in the spotlight. As for her dancing, well, she doesn't ease on down the road so much as clod-hop through it. But it's worth remembering that her Dorothy is still a schoolgirl, and the performer's stage presence is likely to improve — particularly if she picks up anything from the trio of divas providing a master class in show-stopping as her costars: Dawnn Lewis (A Different World) as take-no-guff good witch Adddaperle, Tichina Arnold (Everybody Hates Chris) as take-even-less-guff bad witch Evillene, and Tony winner LaChanze as Aunt Em and Glinda. In this most democratic of musicals, which doles out numbers to a wide number of supporting players, they each get a moment to shine. As the curtain falls, you can't help but feel a brand new day. B+

(Tickets: 212.581.1212 or nycitycenter.org)

Originally posted Jun 18, 2009