As Kansas farmhouses-in-hurricanes fly, The Emerald City is only a hop, skip and jump down a yellow brick road — and, on June 18, Dorothy Gale & Friends again gleefully hit those celebrated bricks for a revival of The Wiz, one instigated by City Center Encores! as the third annual offering in its Summer Stars series.
The avowed intent of the series is to give stars a shot at shows they ordinarily would not have, and this Tony-winning Best Musical of 1975 allows the strong-lunged Ashanti some quality-stage time outside an R&B recording studio.
Simply said, she sang the socks off Charlie Smalls' score (also a Tony winner), and the audience seemed to be with her every note of the way, exploding into wild whoops and applause in mid-number throughout like — well, like true fans.
"This is my first time onstage," the diva declared, visibly relieved, at the post-show party that curled through the City Center lobby and out into the adjacent atrium. "I felt so much love tonight. It was amazing, just to feel the love from the audience and to be attached to such a talented cast. It was great. I'm very blessed indeed."
Role-wise, she found much to relate to about the character she played. "I think Dorothy and I have a lot of similarities in life. She started out very naïve, and she learned on her journey to become stronger and stronger — and to, obviously, believe. It sorta parallels my life, starting in the music industry and just being naïve and just learning and becoming strong. I think that's why Dorothy and I — well, we jell."
The part also parallels her name, which is her real name and on her birth certificate. "It means Woman of Strength," injected an attractive matron who wore a necklace with the word "Momanager" written across a large heart. "It's an African name for my African queen," explained her mother, Tina Douglas.
L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" has been translated into a variety of worlds, starting — most famously and abidingly — with Judy Garland's classic 1939 movie, which television annually reran into an American institution.
Currently, it is — playfully played from a villainous point of view — Broadway's top-grossing show, pulling in $1.5 million last week alone, as Wicked.
Book writer William F. Brown gave Oz an African-American reading, which matched up neatly and transformingly with Smalls' pop-rock score, and they were off to see the wizard. George Faison choreographed, and Geoffrey Holder costume-designed and directed, both of them to Tony-winning effect.
Mrs. Holder — the still-stunning Carmen De Lavallade — was in elegant attendance and said she enjoyed herself: "It was great hearing that score again."
The look of the show, she conceded, was "quite different" from her husband's vision. He, she hastened to explain, had a good excuse for missing the opening. "He's working tonight in a recording studio," she said. "He's working on a new album."
The Wiz kids now in charge of the show's aggressively overhauled look came to fame with a more recent Tony-winning musical — In the Heights: director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, music director Alex Lacamoire, costume designer Paul Tazewell and scenic designer David Korins.
Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller — having produced In the Heights and, in effect, the talent above — were clucking contentedly at the after-party. Opted McCollum: "It was great seeing all the In the Heights kids really create such a different piece. They're all too young to repeat themselves."
Jack Viertel, who did produce this revival, ducked the obvious question that The Wiz seemed more expensively mounted than its two preceding Summer Stars offerings. "I'm not actually sure, but I don't think it's any different from Gypsy and Damn Yankees," he said. "I think it has to do with wanting to make it look different and having different designers and different design ideas. We hired a bunch of people who were the next generation. They have unbelievable imagination and energy, and they love the show."
"The Wiz deserved a reimagining," contended Kail. "The show is full of life, and it's vital and it's now — even if it was from 1975 — so Encores! is the perfect place to do it because it protects the script and the original orchestrations. It allows you to trust the work and go. We had a great team, and we just went with it."
Surprisingly little cutting was done on the original book, he said. "A couple of little things, here and there. The writer, Bill Brown, and I sat down and spent a couple of afternoons going through it — things he suggested, things I suggested — but they were very, very small, little kind of internal, microscopic beat things."
The Wiz, with Ashanti, LaChanze and Jones, at City Center
Populating the show with a variety of new talent was one of Kail's strong suits, but he passes that credit along. "We had wonderful casting directors, Jay Binder and Sara Schatz over at Binder Casting. I have to say there were so open to new ideas, to trying things out that maybe they didn't want to. We'd say, 'How about this?' and they'd say, 'How about this?' and we all just kinda mixed it up and tried to create an alchemy of the right group of performers on stage."
Blankenbuehler, who gave In the Heights all the right, Tony-winning moves, saw this job as keeping The Wiz in a pretty perpetual state of motion.
"When we first took the piece over," he recalled, "we thought, 'This has got to be almost like a story ballet. It just never stops.' I wanted it to never stop moving. It's, like, big impressionistic strokes. As each number came along, I just sorta let my brain go. I didn't jump in with any one big idea. I just sorta took it as it came.
"I had a lot to work with. It's a good 15 numbers, and there are 15 dancers. For me, that's the most dancers I've ever had. In In the Heights,, I had seven dancer-dancers. In 9 to 5 I have eight dancer-dancers, so 15 is extraordinary."
Tanya Birl, who is the show's dance captain and, at various points in the evening, a crow or poppy, seconded that. "The dancing is amazing," she said. "Andy totally outdid himself. He really made the dancers a feature in the show."
On top of everything else, Blankenbuehler gives good hurricane. There are several startling visual effects along the way — like a breakaway set that flies into the wings revealing the orchestra perched in midair on polls. Conductor Lacamoire admitted he'd never been that high before for a performance —"on such a high podium," he clarified. "It's the first time, but I loved it. I was happy to be featured that way."
It makes quite an entrance for a whole orchestra. "It's very dramatic. Andy and Tommy thought of that, and I am very happy to be part of that little drama."
Lighting designer Ken Billington, who gave ominous storm clouds to the billowing fabrics on stage, was likewise pleased with the evening. "Fabulous," he assessed, in fact. "We were all on the same page. All the designers and the director and the choreographer — we all made it happen. This is a good retelling of the story. The original was brilliant, and this is totally different — and brilliant, also."
On this ultimate road trip to get back to Kansas, you'll recall, Dorothy is accompanied by a brainless Scarecrow, a heartless Tinman and a chicken-livered Lion — "circus people," as one character airily (and not inaccurately) calls them. All are bound for The Wiz, whom they think will remedy their respective deficits.
The man who would be The Wiz is a fresh recruit from films, comedian Orlando Jones. "New York theatre is something I've been waiting to do and talking about doing for some time," he admitted. "I had the opportunity to do Fences with Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett at the Pasadena Playhouse. I was really fortunate and got nominated for an Ovation Award out there. This is my second foray back to the stage since then, so it's just incredible to be here and experience that. I'm having the time of my life. It really is just incredible — in every sense of the word, in every possible way. I love doing it every night."
The Scarecrow of the group, lanky Christian Dante White, brings Ray Bolger's elastic physicality to the part. "I saw him when I was little, but I paid more attention to the lion," he said. "I purposefully did not watch the movie of The Wiz once I got this. I didn't want to copy anything Michael Jackson did because he did everything so brilliantly. I wanted to put my own stamp on it."
Joshua Henry stepped manfully out of the In the Heights ensemble and into the Tinman suit where he shined like a new dime with the one song Luther Vandross contributed to the score, "Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day)."
"It's a wonderful song — probably the most favorite song that I have sung to date since I've been performing," Henry confessed. "It's about connecting with the feeling or trying to reconnect with something you've had. I know what it's like to want to get a feeling back — that's something that's so universal — so I love connecting on that level. And the music really helps that song. It's such a powerful moment."
Large of girth and heart, James Monroe Iglehart admitted to more than a passing resemblance to his character ("the Lion is a lot like me — that's who the hell I am"), and he was fortunate to have seen the Tony-winning originator of the role. "I saw Ted Ross do it when he came on tour, and I've loved the role ever since."
All glammed up and dressed to kill, svelte and sexy Dawnn Lewis is a radically reconceptualized Addaperle, The Good Witch of the North. Her theatrical attack falls somewhere between Bette Davis doing Margo Channing and Carol Burnett doing Norma Desmond. "I'm inspired by both of those women.
"The Wizard of Oz was a show that I have watched since childhood, and The Wiz was the first movie that I played for my daughter, so to be a part of this particular show is something I truly relate to and can identify with.
"Until I watched the show from the green room, I didn't realize what build-up there was for Addaperle, so I got nervous, but it's a great character, and it's a great show. I think it's cast perfectly because everyone just hits it head-on and owns the world. I hope The Wiz will live on. It's lived since 1975. I wasn't that old, then. I'll be 40 next week — June 28, but to wake up and do what you love doing is a blessing."
Another major source of merriment is Tichina Arnold, who struts out Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, in bossy, go-girl style. That was her attitude in going after the part, and it hasn't changed. "When I met with the director for the role and had the original interview, that's along the same lines of what we did tonight," she recalled. "He just kinda let me go. Every other day I would ask him, 'Are you sure you don't want to give me any notes or push-or-pull me in any particular direction?' He said, 'No, if you go somewhere I don't want you to go, I'll be sure to tell you.' And he has never said a word, except 'I'm so glad you're here.' So I love Tommy Kail."
LaChanze, a Tony winner for The Color Purple, does a two-hat trick here, opening the show as Aunt Em with "The Feeling We Once Had" and closing it as Glinda with "A Rested Body Is a Rested Mind" and "Believe in Yourself." "These songs are written pretty much in the golden tones of my voice. They were easy songs for me, and I loved working on this piece. And the cast — everyone has been super-cool. It has been a wonderful experience from the beginning. It was a dream come true. This is one of my favorite musicals of all time. I've always wanted to be a part of this, and I never had the opportunity." [One reason for that: Stephanie Mills, who originated the part of Dorothy in The Wiz in 1975 at age 15, was reluctant to give the role up and returned to Broadway in it in a 1984 revival.]
LaChanze gives Kail credit for the double assignment. "That was the director's idea to do that," she said. "He said, 'I want to start with love and end with love.'" She takes her curtain call in Glinda glitter rather in Aunt Em grubbiness. "That really would have been magical because there was no time to make that change. I have sparkles all over my body. There is no way Aunt Em could have come back after that."
Bill Berloni, who trained Sandy for Annie and wrote a book about it ("Broadway Tales"), was in charge of Dorothy's dog, Toto (played by Nigel) — a fairly uncomplicated matter of jumping into, and out of, Ashanti's arms from time to time.
"He's only in the first scene and the last scene, so it was a very simple show for me. I actually took the book writer aside tonight and said, 'Why didn't you let Toto go to Oz with her?' He said, 'Well, we couldn't find the trainer to train the dog to do it.'"
So, every dog doesn't have his day — at least not Toto (not now, anyway).
This article was originally published June 19, 2009.