The musical “The Wiz” originally opened at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway, in January 1975. After mixed reviews, the producer considered folding the show, but an influx of cash, and a commercial featuring the cast rendition of “Ease On Down the Road” saved it. Within six months it was a constant sellout. Eventually it ran for four years and over 1600 performances.
Why does PS Luhn care about these facts? They interest me, because a young man, in one of my high school classes, Ralph Wilcox was in that original cast on Broadway. Ralph was, I believe, several years older than me, tall, slim, handsome, already successful as a model, and not much interested dealing with a short, skinny white boy, who looked more like a girl. As I recall, Ralph was never much more than polite to me, and often sarcastic, pompous and disdainful. But hey, I KNEW that guy!
So, because I always have an interest in what is happening at Encore Theatre, because I have some small ties to the play, itself, and because I knew several of the cast members, and most of its directors and crew, I went to see this show last weekend.
One more caveat: I despised the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz”. I was not fond of Judy Garland, and the flying monkeys scared the poop out of me. The 1978 film “The Wiz” was horrible version. I will admit, Michael Jackson was never my favorite. And Diana Ross as Dorothy? Really?!?! 33 years old? There was a spoof of The 1939 film released in 1981. “Under the Rainbow”, with Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher, which is my favorite of all of these.
But I digress. Encore Theatre has gambled that a musical, meant for an all-African American cast could, 1. Find enough talent in the community, and 2. Interest an audience that has been traditionally been overwhelmingly white. After seeing the show last evening, I think the answers are clear. No, Encore was not able to fill an entire cast with African Americans. But… they were able to showcase the many actors of color who exist in this area, simply awaiting their opportunity. And no one cared that this was a mixed cast. Great performances abounded from all. The second question was answered with a 70% full house, a very appreciative audience.
The play follows Dorothy, a girl transported via tornado, to the magical land of Oz. She accidentally kills off a bad witch, steals her slippers, meets a strange group of characters, while killing yet another witch (a bad one, of course!), charming the locals, and two other witches, these the good kind. Her companions, The Cowardly Lion, The Scarecrow and The Tin Man, are all in need of one nebulous thing or another. The plot doesn’t do much for me.
But I love to watch people enjoying themselves on stage. I love to see energy, and actors and actresses who are really “into” the performance. And that’s exactly what I saw last night. This production didn’t always have the best voices, the best dancing, the best whatever, but they were there to have fun and drag us into that fun. And that’s fun to watch.
I found some of the performances to be noteworthy. As Dorothy, a young lady from Findlay, Mya Lunguy, endeared herself too the audience with, a cute demeanor, a nice voice, good dancing skills, and a genuine believability. Her bio lists, an incredible amount of musical theatre credits for someone her age. She will go far.
I have worked with Joshua Gooding before. He is a terrific actor who is always “in” every scene. His Tin Man was an integral part of the show. His voice is smooth and technically proficient. He was fun to watch and hear.
I am always impressed with Gary Martin (Cowardly Lion). He finds ways to bring some of himself to every role. He was instantly loved by the viewers. And he had the best volume of the four travelers. The Lion needs to be over-the-top at times. Martin is an expert on this, when he needs to be.
Our Scarecrow was floppy, as needed. Caustic and flip when necessary. With the beautiful name for an actor, Chase Little Battle, he needed to be special. He was. Playing up to the others in the traveling foursome, Little Battle, may not have had the vocal chops that they did, but he managed to add much to the company dynamic.
There are several others that require my praise. First, the Good Witch (of one of the directions), Glinda, does not come on until the very end. It is a disappointment, of sorts, because she has the best and most powerful voice in the show. Our Glinda was played by Karrie Lester, an actress with a long list of credits and accomplishments. Her best accomplishment, last night, was the control she immediately had over us with her magnificent voice and stage presence. She was a sweet prelude for the end of the story.
Stage presence is also a trait of the actress who was Evelline, another of those bad witches. Morgan Bode’s acting and her monster solo wowed the audience. She has come from a stage family, has been involved with Encore’s youth theatre program, and has appeared on this stage many times. I have never seen a weak performance from her, and last evening was no exception. Her voice, movement and mannerisms were all bad– in a good way.
I save my last and most intense comments for an actress for whom I have the utmost respect. The original “Wiz” was portrayed by a male. The Wiz we saw, last evening, was creatively cast, by director Missy Keller, as a female. I’m looking for the Wiz to be a man, and when it’s obvious he’s not a “he” I might expect a bit of disappointment. But I saw immediately that Ms. Keller knew what she was doing. Her choice for this important character was Jaimie Lewis, Columbus Grove graduate (Great musical theatre program, there.). I knew Ms. Lewis could sing, but I hadn’t realized just how commanding, she could be, both in her vocals and her stage aura. Tall, slim, athletic, this young woman displayed her power with humor, anger, and a little bit of sensuality. A better choice could not have been made. Lewis was a knockout.
There are many more positive things to say about the show. The super pit orchestra, the colorful and functional costumes, the dance routines. Even the lighting was a useful and fun addition. But this review has already gone long enough. Needless to say, this production will continue to be well received, by increasingly larger crowds. It deserves the adulation it will receive. Start calling for that ticket, now! The show is in it’s final weekend, July 22-24, 2016.