It’s nice to report that Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s current production of The Wiz is an improvement over the company’s last version of the show, which took place some years ago in a different venue from WBTT’s current theater. And since the show is all about finding home, it’s also nice that WBTT has one of its own now.
In fact, what problems might exist with the new production have more to do with the show itself, which first bowed on Broadway in 1975 (and won several Tonys). The urban nature and specific tone of this African-American take on L. Frank Baum’s classic Wizard of Oz story feels a little dated now in some ways. And while some viewers may like that the show almost immediately launches into the tornado that takes Dorothy from Harlem to Oz (following a brief but touching opening number sung by Tarra Conner jones’ Aunt Em), I wanted more time to get to know Dorothy, to see her character’s flaws and strengths before she gets swept up and carried away, so that her journey would ultimately mean more to me.
But aside from those two caveats, there is much to like in this lively, energetic show, directed and choreographed by Kenney M. Green. It’s fun, for one thing, to see how the beloved characters of the Scarecrow (Joey James), the Tin Man (Leon S. Pitts II) and the Lion (E. Mani Cadet) make the transition to hipper versions of themselves, aided by Cristy Owen’s clever costume designs. The Wiz also adds the engaging character of Addaperle, not found in the classic film version (played here by Ariel Blue), a not-very-good stage magician but a witch with a heart to help Dorothy.
And then there’s Dorothy herself, played by Khadijah Rolle (who played Nettie in WBTT’s recent production of The Color Purple). Again, while I sometimes wished her character was given more room to show how she changes and grows along the way, Rolle herself is highly likable in the role, delivering songs like “Be a Lion” and the show’s closer, “Home,” with fervor and dancing with spirit on the show’s hit “Ease on Down the Road” along with her fellow travelers.
That tune, and others inspirational in tone (“Brand New Day,” “Believe in Yourself,” “If I Could Feel,” the latter delivered, with feeling, by the supposedly heartless Tin Man/Pitts) lift The Wiz. And jones, in a dual role as the wicked witch Evillene, gets her chance to belt with gusto on the “No Bad News” number that’s a highlight of Act II.
The Wiz also features a strong ensemble cast playing Munchkins and monkeys and adding zest on dance numbers like “You Can’t Win” and tumult on “The Tornado Ballet,” where waving cloths, black lights and strong choreography depict the storm. And the four performers comprising the Yellow Brick Road, with their yellow suits touched by brick designs under Michael Pasquini’s effective lighting, work well to keep us moving along.
Two more points: Michael Mendez, although he seems young to play The Wiz, does convey the right preacher-like passion on “Y’All Got It.” And music director John Bronston and his players get the show’s driving rhythms right.
The Wiz continues through Nov. 20. For tickets call (941) 366-1505 or go to westcoastblacktheatre.org.