For the next six weeks, The Emerald City can be found in Simi Valley as Actors Repertory Theatre Of Simi presents The Wiz, aka The Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” a mixed bag of a production that nonetheless offers SoCal audiences the rarer-than-rare chance to see a bona fide Broadway groundbreaker, one that proved that a musical with an all-African-American cast could not only win Tonys (seven in all) but become one of the Top Forty longest-running musicals in Broadway history.
There had been all-black musicals before The Wiz (Purlie, Raisin, and Pearl Bailey’s Hello, Dolly! among them) but book writer William F. Brown’s re-imagining of the L. Frank Baum children’s classic as a celebration of African-American culture put it in a class by itself, raising the question: Should a theater company stage The Wiz if it can’t adhere fully to the original’s basic concept?
Though ARTS smartly casts African-Americans in all leading roles, the supporting ensemble is decidedly mixed, leaving this reviewer with decidedly mixed feelings, a combination of excitement at being allowed to experience a Broadway legend for the very first time, delight at the opportunities it offers its underrepresented stars, and discomfort with seeing a show specifically written to pay tribute to black culture performed by those outside that experience.
At the very least, lead roles are in good hands under Keenon Hooks’ brisk direction.
Africa Turner gives Dorothy a mix of farm-girl spunk and big vocals in “Soon As I Get Home,” “Be A Lion,” and “Home,” and the pixyish charmer is joined on her journey down the Yellow Brick Road by a trio of exciting young triple-threats.
Elijah Malcolm captures all of Scarecrow’s awkward physicality and charm, J-Blake White is a delightfully “magnetic” Tinman, and Mookie Johnson could not make for a more a-roar-able Lion, and each gets at least one solo to show off power pipes, Malcolm’s “I Was Born On The Day Before Yesterday,” Johnson’s “(I’m A) Mean Ole Lion,” and White’s “Slide Some Oil To Me” and “What Would I Do If I Could Feel,” the latter of which brings down the Act One curtain to audience cheers.
Charlie Smalls’ songs provide vocal showcases for Brittany Gael Vaughn’s warmhearted Aunt Em (“The Feeling We Once Had”), Brigetta Barrett’s wacky Addaperle (“He’s The Wizard”), LaThomas Brimm’s fancy-talking Wiz (“Believe In Yourself,” Terika Jefferson’s sassy Evilene (“Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” and Brittany S. Wheeler’s powerhouse Glinda (“Believing Reprise”).
True Adair (Lord High Underling), Louis Baker (Uncle Henry), Augusto Guardado (Lead Winged Monkey), Alexander Reaves (Gatekeeper), and Shandar Robinson (Kalidah Queen) and all have effective moments in their cameos.
Completing the cast are Paige Barrella, Autumn Ericson, Audrey Grace Fischer, Marina Hanna, Justin P. James, Caitlyn Rose Massey, Caeli Molina, Zoë Reed, Justin Robinson, Maya Helene Schlesinger, Camille Schwartz, and Jessica Smith as assorted Munkins, Crows, Poppies, Winkies, Quadlings, etc.
Choreographer Becky Castells tailors dance moves to cast members’ individual skills, and there are some imaginative dance sequences in The Wiz. (Although the dancing Yellow Brick Road didn’t work for me, the human “Tornado” did.)
Still, full-cast production numbers often left me feeling that I was seeing a school production not at the professional level that made last year’s Catch Me If You Can a match for many regional offerings.
Musical director Gary Poirot conducts as terrific a pit orchestra as I’ve seen at SMPAC, sweetened this time round by some powerful pit singers.
Lori Lee Gordon has confectioned an imaginative bevy of mostly quite effective costumes that give each stop along the Yellow Brick Road a colorful new look. David Daniels and Anthony Soto’s set design relies primarily on Daniels and Jan Glasband’s rear-screen projections that occasionally get washed out by the production’s otherwise fine lighting. Technical director Seth Kamenow scores high marks for a sound design that allows for a clear mix of amped vocals and instrumentals.
The Wiz is produced by Glasband. Wheeler is assistant director, Guardado is dance captain, and Alissa Horner is assistant to the choreographer. Brenda Goldstein is stage manager.
Though not the whiz of a Wiz that I would have wished for, the latest from Actors Repertory Theatre Of Simi nonetheless allows audiences to experience a musical far too rarely produced with some memorable lead and featured performances along the Yellow Brick Road.
Actors Repertory Theatre Of Simi, Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley.
June 5, 2016