The National Tour of “The Wiz” eased its way on down to Baltimore for the National Tour launch of its Pre-Broadway engagement this week at the Hippodrome Theatre, 50 years after making its 1974 world premiere in the same city. This hilarious production takes the classic musical and modernizes it, keeping the soul alive while allowing new audiences to connect with the story.
Written by William F. Brown, “The Wiz” reimagines “The Wizard of Oz” with a taste of gospel, funk, and R&B. At the start of the show, the audience is introduced to the monochromatic set and costumes of the real world before a whimsically choreographed tornado transports us to the bright and colorful world of Oz, showcasing Director Schele Williams’ ability to adapt the film onto stage in an innovative way. The opulent costumes, flashy backdrop, and powerful lighting provide a visual feast for audiences that, in tandem with Williams’ direction, help progress the story in an exciting way.
The electric choreography by JaQuel Knigh, who also choreographed Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” spans a variety of decades and styles, merging 60s motown with modern hip-hop and classic musical theatre. In the show’s opening of its second act, we witness a pure showcase of ensemble talent, adding to the modernity of this production via the juxtaposition between the graceful ballet and techno music.
In addition to the stellar choreography and direction, the show is carried by the acting and vocals of its powerhouse leads. Deborah Cox’s Glinda emerged radiant as a diamond with her angelic voice that led our leading lady, Dorothy, through each sequence of her story, and Melody A. Betts’ Evillene brought the house down with her showstopping “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.”
Accompanying our leading ladies are Kyle Ramar Freeman, as the hilarious Lion, Philip Johnson Richardson as the incredibly slick Tinman, and Avery Wilson as the fluid and charismatic Scarecrow. Each of their voices melted in my ears in differing ways as they belted and riffed their way through the story.
The highlight of this production is Virginia-native Nichelle Lewis, who will be making her well-deserved Broadway debut in what I can only refer to as the role that was made for her. The dichotomy between her being a lost girl but also a badass showcases her versatility in the role and enabled the audience to connect with her from the moment the curtain rose. She brings a realness to this character in a show full of larger-than-life personalities that makes you not only champion her, but want to be her best friend too. Her riffs and decision to opt-up in the necessary places made it easy to focus solely on her – so much so that the climactic ending of the show required no set or backdrop – just her and her captivating voice.
Revivals are meant to breathe life into a show and the Pre-Broadway engagement of “The Wiz” is an exceptional example of a revival done right.
“The Wiz” runs at The Hippodrome Theatre through September 30th.F
Final Grade: A+