News Column

'The Wiz' cast soars but production fails to leave fans blown away

June 1, 2013

YellowBrix

June 01--Dorothy and friends are still easing on down the road in "The Wiz," though this time the production could use a little oil to make for a smoother trek.

The Black Rep closes out its current season with "The Wiz," playing out the African-American retelling of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" through June 30 on the Grandel Theatre stage. The musical opened Friday night.

And for the long-running company Black Rep, "The Wiz" is like welcoming home an old, popular friend, still welcome even though the friend is a little weary around the edges.

"The Wiz," originally produced on Broadway in 1975, is a surefire crowd-pleaser for the Black Rep and for good reason. It's a very familiar story stuffed with great soulful music and it's geared towards the entire family.

The timing of the Black Rep's production couldn't be better with the ongoing popularity of all things Oz including the continued success of "Wicked" to the recent movie "Oz: The Great and Powerful."

The Black Rep's new production boasts a couple of Broadway veterans in Cedric Neal, seen in "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" as Crabman, as the Wiz, and Sophia Stephens, who played Nala in "The Lion King," as Glinda the Good Witch of the South.

Directed by Black Rep founder Ron Himes, "The Wiz" is as colorful, vibrant and top-tapping of a production as "The Wiz" needs to be as we encounter Kansas girl Dorothy, in a chipper, big-voiced performance by Sarah Stephens (Sophia Stephens' sister), swept away to the magical land of Oz.

(Ironic side note: Friday night as Dorothy was transplanted by a tornado, here smartly portrayed by dancers with long flowing ribbons, real-life tornado weather ripped through the St. Louis region).

After landing her house on an evil witch in Oz, Dorothy encounters a group of new friends most of us have known all our lives, all greatly cast here.

There's the nimble Scarecrow (Ian Coultier-Buford) looking for a brain, the creaky Tin Man (Keith Tyrone) looking for a heart, and a sometimes effeminate lion (Herman Gordon), who just got his mane "done," looking for courage.

Other characters, all part of Dorothy's eventual journey back home and discovery of believing in yourself, include Good Witch of the North Addaperle (Linda Kennedy, having a ball on stage), Wicked Witch of the West Evillene (Raphaelle Darden, great and gone too soon in her role), the Gatekeeper (Daniel Hodges, gleefully over the top) and the Wiz himself (Cedric Neal, delicious in his portrayal of the titular character).

The cast universally soars through the production, though the audio on the band felt low and muddy. Songs such as Aunt Em's (Nakischa Joseph) "The Feeling We Once Had," Gordon's "Be a Lion," Neal's "So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard," Tyrone's "What Would I Do If I Could Feel," Sophia Stephens' "Believe in Yourself" and Sarah Stephens' show-closing "Home" are among the highlights.

But the "Wiz" underwhelms from a production standpoint. The set looks flimsy and unreliable, and the cutting of corners is evident. Glitter doubling for water just doesn't work, though yellow-dressed dancers carrying yellow poles nicely portrayed the Yellow Brick Road.

Visitors to this Oz won't help but wish they were left more blown away visually.

"The Wiz"

When 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through June 30 (with a 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. performance June 22) Where Grandel Theatre How much $29-$47 More info MetroTix

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