Now extended thru April 23rd!
Ease on down the road to this entertaining production
|Kokandy Productions presents|
Review by Catey Sullivan
The timing is weird: The Wiz hasn’t been seen in Chicago for years, but the month of March sees the opening of two productions of the seven-time Tony winner. Kokandy’s all-African American cast is the first out of the gate. (Emerald City Children’s Theatre – which, per its press release – does not have an all African-American cast – opens later.)
Kokandy director Lili-Anne Brown takes a literal stance on the show’s billing as an “urbanization” of L. Frank Baum’s beloved tale. The Kansas farm of the original is gone. Instead, the lights go up on the decaying cement blocks and graffiti-strewn “Kansas Homes,” a neighborhood that’s vibrant and lively despite the rust and the grime. Brown makes the opening scene rich with vivid details: Among other streetwise scenarios, there’s a sidewalk clothing saleswoman and a dice game in progress. The neighborhood might not be wealthy, but it’s bursting with humanity.
Brown’s production is uneven but ultimately well-worth seeing. The Wiz falters when the young cast falls back on hamming things up rather than honestly emoting. Less would be far more here – there’s a whole lot of way-over-the-top mugging and overacting among principals and ensemble members alike.
Some of the problems are unavoidable due to the very nature of the show: Given the citified setting, the twister that blows through feels a bit incongruous. The other main issue lies in Charlie Small’s music and lyrics and William F. Brown’s book. The former simply aren’t at all well-integrated with the latter. Between the songs and dialogue, there’s clumsiness where there should be smooth segues. The overall feel is of a straight play where musical numbers have been shoehorned in as an afterthought; that feeling is a real momentum-killer, especially in Brown’s disjointed staging of the poppy field scene.
Kokandy’s Wiz also suffers from tinny sound design, and while music director Jimmy Morehead gets laudable vocals from his cast, the on-stage band (perched above the stage) sounds skeletal and lacks the orchestral fullness the score demands. Finally, there’s the absence of Toto. Granted, real dogs are cumbersome and expensive to put on stage. Still, given the terrier’s crucial role in both putting Dorothy in the middle of the life-changing storm and in preventing her from joining the Wizard on his balloon back home, Toto’s absence makes the show feel like it’s missing a crucial piece.
But there’s no denying the energy and the gusto the cast brings to the stage. It’s not just the Tin Man who displays plenty of heart here. It’s everybody. If the only Oz you know is the one in Wicked, you need to ease on down the road to The Wiz.
Segues aside, the cast does right by the score, giving an infectious groove to the iconic “Ease on Down the Road,” and delivering the anthemic “Believe in Yourself” with energy at a cyclonic-force. The musical numbers are helped by choreographer Breon Arzell, who takes cues from the underground ballroom scene as well as vogueing and disco among other contemporary influences. There’s a distinct whiff of “Paris is Burning” to some numbers, and it is both delightful and wildly appropriate.
Kokandy’s The Wiz also excels in making Baum’s story speak to 21st century city folk with the same urgency and clarity the original brought to Depression-era century farm girls. When Glinda, Addaperle and the Wizard tell Dorothy to believe in herself, it’s a message for the ages and a gleaming reminder that the lives of these characters matter deeply. Equally powerful is the plot’s reminder that you have to be happy in your own backyard before you can be happy anywhere else. You might make your way all the way from the inner city to the Emerald City, but you’ll never be able to erase the power of the place where you were raised.
Brown has a fittingly charismatic Dorothy in Sydney Charles, who brings both spunk and a wide-eyed innocence to the part. As Addaperle, Angela Alise mixes sophistication with the smallest dollop of looniness, giving us a Good Witch whose chill vibe is accompanied by mighty magic.
Dorothy’s companions include Steven Perkins as a fleet-footed Tin Man, Chuckie Benson as the goofy, not-entirely timid Lion and Gilbert Domally as a rubber-limbed Scarecrow. Costume designer Virginia Varland’s creativity adds to the characters: As the Wiz, Frederick Harris’ bright-green hotpants, cloak and vinyl-thigh-high ensemble is a formidable, gender-fluid look worthy of the runway. Addaperle’s Kente cloth is also a character-defining delight. And Dorothy’s “silver slippers” kick the famed footwear into modern times.
The Wiz continues through
April 16 April 23rd at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Wednesdays-Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays 3pm & 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $33-$38, and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online through TheaterWit.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at KokandyProductions.com. (Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Sydney Charles (Dorothy), Gilbert Domally (Scarecrow), Steven Perkins (Tin Man), Chuckie Benson (Lion), Nicole Michelle Haskins (Aunt Em, Evilene), Anna Dauzvardis (Glinda), Frederick Harris (the Wiz), Angela Alise (Addaperle), Breon Arzell, Kyrie Courter, TJ Crawford, Desmond Gray, Jyreika Evelyn Guest, De’Jah Perkins, Tia Pinson, Michael Rawls (ensemble), Darian Tene, Darren Patin (swings), Julian Terrell Otis (understudy)
Jimmy Morehead (conductor, keyboard), Adam Roebuck (trumpet), Beaushay Norton (trombone), Scott Simon (drums), Mark Berls (bass), Kyle McCollough (guitar), Jay Gummert, Adam DeGroot (reeds)
behind the scenes
Lili-Anne Brown (director), Jimmy Morehead (musical direction), Breon Arzell (choreography), Arnel Sancianco (set design), Virginia Varland (costume design), Alexander Ridgers (lighting design), Michael J. Patrick (sound design), Kirstin Johnson (sound engineer), Mealah Heidenreich (props design), Lindsay Brown (production manager), Alan Weusthoff (techinical director), Emily Boyd (paint charge), Kailey Rockwell (asst. music director), Darian Tene (asst. choreographer), Shawn Kronk (master electrician), Kait Samuels (stage manager), Ebony Chuukwu (asst. stage manager), Jyreika Evelyn Guest (dance captain), Michael Brosilow (photos)
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