By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III www.ThePeoplesCritic.com
It was just before curtain time when Dan Knechtges, the very enthusiastic Artistic Director of Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars, stepped on stage to welcome the audience of the current run of the new TUTS production of the Charlie Smalls musical, THE WIZ. Mr. Knechtges promised the audience it was “in for a treat,” and I am sure many would agree when the final curtain came down. With its creative book by William F. Brown, this 1975 Broadway success was a pioneer in the use of an all-black cast. In this edition, the able direction of Robert O’Hara, cute and flashy choreography of designer Byron Easely, witty costumes of designer, Dede Ayite, and Darryl G. Ivey’s fine Musical Direction with full orchestra, all combine to deliver the “treat” that had been promised.
I’m sure no-one needs a recap of L. Frank Baum’s iconic American tale of The Wizard of Oz, with its legendary heroes, the Tin Man, the Lion, the Scarecrow, and their young teenaged farmgirl friend, Dorothy, all of whom passed into legend via the classic 1939 film starring Judy Garland. They all return to us here in this fun-filled and funky rendition of the story that has been making the rounds on stage and in film for nearly 4o years. Readers who may have longed for a chance to hear the kinds of powerhouse vocalists that headline world-renowned gospel choirs need look no farther. Delivering sensational solos that could reach the upper balconies without the aid of a microphone, we have the talents of Salome Smith (Dorothy), Marva Hicks (The Wiz and Uncle Henry), Simone Gundy (as Addaperle, The Good Witch of the North), Allyson Kaye Daniel (as the Lion), and Yvette Monique Clark (in a triple-role as Aunt Em, the Wicked Witch, Evillene, and as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South). Christopher Campbell as the Scarecrow, and Paris Nix as the Tin Man bring along vocal magic of their own.
The action plays out on a generally bare stage that is enhanced by a unique central scenic design looking much like a five-pointed crystal surrounding a magic door. That crystal-like shape (set designer, Jason Sherwood) is ever-changing throughout the show via colorful lighting (designer Alex Jainchill), and imaginative projections (designer, Aaron Rhyne). Equally imaginative are the eye-popping costumes of designer, Dede Ayite. The costumes were often amusing as well, as in the case of Miss Gundy’s scene-stealing, Addaperle, with her hilarious headpiece, and of course the colorful balloon suits on the Munchkin-like youngsters in Oz, played merrily by six young members of the local Humphreys School of Musical Theatre.
While some relationships may seem a bit underdeveloped dramatically, (as was the case in the opening scene between sassy young Dorothy and her strict Aunt Em), the solid music and great vocals would quickly rush to the rescue, along with some terrific special effects as in the suddenly arriving tornado.
Further support would come from the fine choral ensemble and the several dazzling ensemble dance segments, capped by more delightfully flashy costumes like those in the infectious, “Ease on Down the Road.” That number was reminiscent of the glittering gold and top-hatted dancers from, “A Chorus Line.” Another infectious tune that would follow the audience home was Act Two’s, “Everybody Rejoice,” which is much better known by the title it should have had, “A Brand New Day.”
Among the vocal highlights was pint-sized Miss Smith’s surprisingly powerful, “Soon As I Get Home.” As the panhandling Scarecrow, Mr. Campbell fires off a high-energy, “Born on the Day Before Yesterday,” that smacked of some Michael Jackson-style dance moves. The Tin Man’s song, “Slide Some Oil to Me,” was not the catchiest tune, but Mr. Nix livens it up with some snazzy tap dancing.
Singing the “Mean Ole Lion” song, Miss Daniel, beautifully costumed in mangy and rust-colored layered fur, filled the stage with ferocity as the Lion’s long tail whirled about behind her.
Another eye-popping costume comes with the arrival of our mincing and prancing Wiz, with Miss Hicks adorned in glittering emerald green pants and shimmering matching cloak. And all of that fun comes before the Intermission. Why not ease on down the road and check out the full production for yourself, especially if you have any youngsters in need of a first experience of attending live theatre?
THE WIZ continues through November 4th at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances Wednesday & Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday & Saturday at 8pm, and 2pm matinee performances on both Saturday and Sunday. For tickets visit the website at http://www.thehobbycenter.org, or call (713) 558-8887 locally, and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).
A member of The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the columns of David Dow Bentley III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com .