A packed house filled the Philip Chosky Theater on Friday night preceding Dorothy (Annie Yokom), Aunt Em (Johari Mackey), and Uncle Henry’s (Ethan Crystal) appearance on stage. While I had never seen the original 1978 version of “The Wiz,” my friend’s mention of Michael Jackson’s appearance in it prompted me for a night filled with charismatic singing and dancing. Within the first few minutes, Mackey began her beautiful performance of “The Feeling we Once Had” and I was immediately hooked. Prior to the performance I had skimmed the program, which mentioned that during the Jim Crow Era, which this performance takes place in, there were often urban orphans sent to rural areas where they may have ended up with guardians of a different race, as was the situation between Aunt Em and Dorothy in this opening scene.
The backdrop of slanted lights and frames set the scene perfectly for the impeding tornado that would take Dorothy to Oz, but didn’t seem to serve much more of a purpose than to illuminate a different colored light for each scene. I felt the choreographed dancing during the tornado was a nice touch and immediately fell in love with the munchkins that greeted Dorothy on the other side of the storm. Not only were the munchkins hilarious in their different colored onesies, but the good witch of the North, Addaperle (Joel Weil), also performed fabulously, although I was concerned if she bent down too low she might pull a Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident circa 2004 in her costume.
The stellar performances continued as Dorothy encountered the Scarecrow (Philippe Arroyo), Tinman (Harron Atkins), and Lion (Jean G. Floradin). It was easy to tell which character the King of Pop played all those years ago as Arroyo was dismounted from the Scarecrow stand and immediately fell into several agile splits. Atkins stole the show with his natural rhythm and beautiful voice while pulling off his simple yet effective costume of overalls and silver paint effortlessly. Floradin’s sly movements and immaculate mane helped compliment his character’s fierce, yet timid personality, but I felt that his charming voice was drowned out a bit by the orchestra.
The gang’s arrival into Emerald City was met with flashy lights and even flashier costumes on the city’s residents. While this served well to portray the glitz and glamour of the city, there were several instances throughout the performance where the lights were too busy blinding audience members to impress them. The appearance of the Wiz (Erron Crawford) posed the same problem I saw earlier in Floradin’s performance, as the band seemed to overshadow parts of Crawford’s singing. Nevertheless, Crawford portrayed the character as nothing less than powerful, with the ending of Act I employing a circular computer screen to serve as the Wiz in a forceful robotic form. It must be helpful to have such strong computer science and drama schools within the same University when putting on performances such as this one and the proper use of resources definitely showed. There were also two additional screens in the backdrop, but didn’t see them being utilized quite as often as I would’ve liked.
The opening of Act II featured the wicked witch of West, Evillene (Veladya Chapman), performing “No Bad News” in a stunning dress and heels that she pulled off without a hitch. While her costume was anything, but ugly, her on stage performance certainly made up for the evil personality she was there to portray. I was also extremely impressed by the winkies enslaved in her castle who were convincing enough to believe that their freedom during the performance of “Brand New Day” was actually taking place right in front of your eyes.
All of the characters that were featured in the performance’s choreographed dance scenes were impeccably in sync from the main four yellow brick road travelers to the four dancers who served as the yellow brick road itself. It was clear that an adequate amount of time had been put into these routines with the perfect mix of enthusiasm from each and every dancer. The last scenes featuring the glittery good witch of the South, Glinda (Maya Maniar), and the quadlings served as a perfect conclusion to the already impressive performances throughout the night.
The Wiz, presented by Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama
Adapted from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum
Book by William F. Brown
Additional Materials by Tina Tippit
Music & Lyrics by Charlie Smalls
Directed and choreographed by Tome’ Cousin
Musical Direction by Thomas Douglas
Runs through February 28, tickets can be purchased here.
Special thanks to Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama for two complimentary press tickets.
Performance Date: Friday, February 20, 2015