The Wiz

By L. Frank Baum, Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown (St. Louis Black Repertory Company)

Ruby slippers, "We're not in Kansas anymore," the yellow-brick road, "Surrender Dorothy," the Wicked Witch of the West and "There's no place like home." Is there any image or aphorism from The Wizard of Oz that hasn't been embedded in our collective consciousnness? And that's not counting "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "If I Only Had a Brain." Where other artists might be intimidated approaching this showbiz colossus -- one of the rare entertainments that appeals equally to children, their parents and drag queens -- the creators of The Wiz, composer/librettist Charlie Smalls and author William F. Brown, delight in the telegraphic idiom that can accurately represent such a widely told story. In their 1975 all-black version, little time need be spent on tedious exposition -- better to let the songcraft tell the story.

In the '70s, The Wiz ran for nearly five years on Broadway and made a star (for a time) of Stephanie Mills, in addition to introducing the work of Luther Vandross to a wider audience. It scooped seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score. When it was filmed, Diana Ross (whose voice was better suited for Glinda the Good Witch) pulled one of the more celebrated episodes of star-tyranny by insisting on being cast as Dorothy. Praised for its canny blend of urban humor and pelting rock backbeat, The Wiz was as hip as boffo-box-office Broadway could get at the time.

How does it play 25 years later in the St. Louis Black Repertory Company's current production? There are fewer songs than you'd remember -- "Ease on Down the Road," with its Motown-ready syncopation, is the one we'll still be singing a century from now. Smalls' score seems slighter and not particularly melodic (it's a melange of proto-rap, gummy R&B balladry and bumptious, brassy rock). But the book is still sprightly, and the jokes mostly work, and there's a goofy charm about having the yellow-brick road be a character (four doo-wop singers in togas and yellow Afros). Musical director Dello Thedford, whose sensibility is deeply rooted in the sacred-music tradition, has spiced up these numbers as gospel solo turns for a surprising (and seemingly endless) set of singers. Not all the fabulous pipes in town are at work over at Opera Theatre of St. Louis right now.

Monica L. Moore, playing Dorothy, shows a dazzling vocal range in her songs. Alas, her acting skills fall far, far below the level of her singing; she relies on either a blank stare or a shoulder-shrugging grimace to signal perplexity. At times, her reactions anticipate her cues -- the real Dorothy got into (and out of) trouble because she didn't listen, but Moore would definitely improve her performance by relaxing during the acting part of the role and letting her co-stars speak to her rather than at her.

Happily, her yellow-brick-road companions are all superb. Ayesha Jordan as the Scarecrow, Leslie M. Johnson as the Tinman and Drummond K. Crenshaw as the Lion are hilarious and impressive -- particularly Jordan, who was wooden in her last Black Rep outing as the ingenue in Steal Away. Though her character here is stuffed with straw, her vitality and finesse are unquestioned from her opening moment, in which she cadges change from Dorothy (no, we're not in Kansas anymore). Tinman Johnson gets the dirty-boogie number "Slide Some Oil to Me" as his signature piece, but he puts real pathos into his gospelized "What Would I Do if I Could Feel?" And Crenshaw's Lion is delicious, strutting in his wide-lapel leather jacket. He's a consummate pavement artist with a two-tone mega-'fro, and his seduction in the poppy field (the "poppies" are B-girls, and he's caught by the "mice squad") is lubriciously perfect -- a Shaft-ian spoof.

As for the witches, good and bad, Brown decided to put the bomp in his Baum -- Glinda (an ethereal Beverly Stewart-Anderson) stays, but her equally good sister is Addaperle (the warmly amusing Jeanne Trevor), a wisecracker who declines to bring Dorothy home because it's a crime to "transport a minor across state lines." Evillene (the sublime Denise Thimes) rules the Western kingdom with an iron fist and a troupe of funky monkeys. Again, Brown skips any exposition, so we get straight to Evillene's song "No Bad News," because the menace of the Wicked Witch is as familiar to us as the rage of the Furies was to ancient Hellenes. Thimes, a towering Amazon with a Mae West insouciance, is frocked in black and gray net. Gregory R. Tayborn II quivers benightedly as her Lord High Underling.

As the Wiz, J. Samuel Davis is the same old medicine-show charlatan envisioned by Baum but with a more neurotic, urban core, albeit one laced with unexpected glimmers of vulnerability and humanity. When Dorothy points out that his dream ("power, prestige and money") makes him a recluse, the Wiz tartly replies, "I am not afraid -- I just have to keep a low profile," and we forgive him his sins.

And the accompanying sextet is remarkably tight, despite being concealed beneath the boards. Despite a few synchronization fluffs early in the performance I saw, as well as some tempo misfires, these singers are remarkably well miked, though the mixing is still problematic, especially on the slower, softer numbers.

Director Ron Himes has apparently told his cast to play big in the relatively intimate Grandel Theatre, and it's a strategy that works well. This is a large cast, with bit players in multiple roles as various denizens of Oz and lots of smart and sexy dancing choreographed by Vivian Anderson Watt, who may enjoy the Solid Gold dancers but clearly has spent time in the contemporary dance world. Scenic designer Felix E. Cochren has contrived tidy set pieces (a tiny Kansas domicile, an artistic creation of plumbing fixtures for Evillene's domain) that whisk on and off. Reggie Ray's costumes for the chorus rely heavily on the simple sarong style, but his duds for the principals are towering confections -- here, those shiny slippers are the least of it.

The Wiz continues through June 25.

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