In 1978, as a six-year-old kid, I watched the movie The Wiz, in a mostly empty mall theater with my older brother and sister. The movie enthralled, traumatized, excited, and bored me. As a somewhat sheltered white kid from the Pacific Northwest, I had a very limited understanding of black artists, black entertainment, and black culture. My best understanding of diversity came through watching Sesame Street or the Electric Company. I was also six and didn’t really have that great of an understanding of the cultural context of my own existence. So for me, The Wiz movie was an introduction to a world I knew very little about.
I had heard the ABC Jackson 5 song, but I had no idea who Michael Jackson was and I certainly didn’t realize he was playing the movie’s Scarecrow. What I did know is that I instantly liked his voice and I wanted to hear more. I think I had seen Nipsy Russel on several daytime game shows, but I had never heard him sing or seen him dance until he put on the Tinman suit and shuffled into my heart. He was the embodiment of cool and I attempted to model that cool, listening to the movie’s soundtrack while dancing and sliding on our living room wood floor. And Diana Ross as Dorothy, and Richard Pryor as the Wizard, and Lena Horne as Glinda, all seemed strangely familiar and wonderfully different to my childhood sensibilities. Those two hours and sixteen minutes of movie magic had a strong impression on my little kid soul. I was also incredibly traumatized.
For me, The Wiz was also a fever dream of nightmarish imagery that revisited me when I had trouble sleeping at night. There is a subway scene in The Wiz that I still watch with one eye closed and my head partially turned away from the screen. The Wiz’s yellow brick road took Dorothy through a fair amount of trauma. Regardless, I loved most of the music and was delighted when my parents bought the double record album. I will admit, the movie did drag a bit for me at the end. My six-year-old attention span could have used one or two fewer “believe in yourself” ballads. Even so, the movie had a profound positive impact on my impressionable mind.
As I grew older, I became aware that The Wiz movie was a loose adaptation of the 1975 Broadway musical, The Wiz. This made me want to see how loosely the original musical was adapted. In 2015 NBC aired a version of The Wiz Broadway musical that was more true to the original production, but the television show also merged some of the movie changes into the original version. All this to say, I had not yet seen the original show performed in its truest form until last night at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. What I experienced last night was a universally approachable, joyful, auditorily and visually pleasing presentation of The Wiz. In many ways, the Broadway musical has a simpler, powerful focus that trusts the audience to find the deeper meaning. Although the show definitely touches on a narrative and imagery unique to the black American experience, the themes go far beyond a racial construct. The Wiz speaks to many universal coming of age themes.
In many ways, Dorothy’s journey to Oz represents a journey towards developing her own sense of self. The Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion represent aspects of the human identity that must be well formed for a person to do well in this world. Through the Scarecrow, Dorothy overcomes her sense of not being smart enough. Through the Tinman, Dorothy learns what it means to be emotionally whole. However, Dorothy needs more than a healthy intellect and healthy emotions; she also needs the courage to step out into the world and to put that health into action. Once she has a healthy confidence in her mind, her heart, and her resolve, she is able to head back home as her own person. For a girl being raised by her aunt and uncle, this sense of identity is crucial for Dorothy to find herself in the world. This universal struggle to find a healthy sense of self makes the Wiz universally approachable.
However, let me be clear. The 5th Avenue’s production of The Wiz is primarily enjoyable because of the amazing voices that anchor the entire show. If she is singing, Kataka Corn (Dorothy) can lead me down any yellow brick road, and I will follow. Honestly, I think hearing her sing the final song is worth the show’s admission. Along with Kataka Corn, all the other artists are extremely gifted and pleasing to the hear and see. Nehemiah Hooks (Scarecrow), Phillip Attmore (Tinman), Nate Tenenbaum (Lion), Marlette Buchanan (Aunt Em), Trina Mills (Glinda), Sarah Russell (Addaperle), Be Russell (The Wiz), Madison Willis (Evillene), and the entire ensemble provide vocal performances that are pretty much unparallel to anything you will ever see at the 5th Avenue Theatre. The singing is so good you get kind of spoiled by it. Oh hum….just another amazing song belted out with powerful musical precision.
The production design and lighting are beautiful and engaging and Kelli Foster Warder’s direction and choreography infuses the musical with comedic energy and a consistent, unrelenting joy. I was particularly enthralled with how the production handled the Lion. His costume was superb and Nate Tenenbaum presented probably the most enjoyable Lion I have seen in any presentation of The Wiz, Wizard of Oz or even the Lion King. He just nailed it and the audience was more than appreciative.
Which brings me to the audience itself and the importance of the 5th Avenue bringing this presentation to the stage in Seattle. There was an energy and responsiveness in the opening night crowd that made the show extremely enjoyable. The night reminded me once again about the magic of live, local theater. There is something truly spiritual and unifying when a room full of people enjoy an edifying experience together.
I will have to admit one problem I had with the show. It is the same problem my six-year-old self had with the movie. I felt like the ending dragged a bit. I would prefer for Glinda and the Wizard to have less stage time and to keep the focus on the foursome that travel the yellow brick road. The ballads sung by Glinda and the Wizard are beautiful, but they take away from the impact of Dorothy’s final show ending number. I know this is more a problem with the original construct of the musical, but I still think it is worth revisiting in future presentations. One or two fewer songs at the end would fit well with the rest of the musical’s brisk pace.
Also, I would be lying if I didn’t say I missed hearing the song “You Can’t Win” that was written for the movie version of The Wiz. I know it isn’t in the original Broadway production, but it was in the production I listened to as a kid while I pretended to be Michael Jackson and danced around our living room floor.
If you want a fun holiday treat, then ease on down the road to the 5th Avenue Theatre to see their energetic and life affirming production of The Wiz.
For us, the two standouts were Dorothy and the Lion.
The entire cast is amazing. The dancing was amazing. (I wish there had been both more tap dancers and more tap dancing. I could visualize all those crows just murdering that number.)
The set was so well designed in how the pieces just slipped together.
Yes, I should’ve mentioned the tap dancing number. It was one of the highlights of the show.
This play was so fun to watch! I’ve seen different variations of the Wizard of Oz but this by far was my favorite. The music and costume design was very amusing. Definitely recommend!
The Wiz was an absolutely stunning show! From the scenic design to costume design to the choreography, everything was seamlessly webbed together. There were a couple of slow spots every once in a while, but they were utterly gorgeous visually despite that. I particularly enjoyed the tornado scene – even though it was a bit dragged out, it felt very encompassing and overwhelming. The acting was superb and the singing was gorgeous and rich. Personally, I didn’t think that the ending dragged on – I found that it dragged on a bit more in the back and forth with the Emerald City, which is understandable.