“The Wiz”: time to ease on down the Yellow Brick Road once more!

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Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion, Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, Wayne Brady as The Wiz, Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman, Avery Wilson as Scarecrow are on stage as The Lion, Dorothy, The Wizard, The Tin Man, and Scarecrow.
(left to right) Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion, Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, Wayne Brady as The Wiz, Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman, Avery Wilson as Scarecrow. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion, Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman, Avery Wilson as Scarecrow dancing arm in arm.
Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion, Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman, Avery Wilson as Scarecrow. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Start with a bright new star making her Broadway debut. Add a glittering, full-voiced pop diva. Put them in an old familiar story that is a coming-of-age fairy tale about a dangerous journey with a found family, told with a bit of modern humor. Presto! It’s the bright new revival of The Wiz, back on Broadway after an absence of forty years! Charlie Smalls’ music is still as warm, lively, and funny as ever, and William F. Brown’s book has been updated with sharp additional material by Amber Ruffin. It’s as much of a crowd-pleaser as it was when it made its debut back in 1975, and it remains a sheer, dazzling musical joy for its audiences.

Newcomer Nichelle Lewis is a feisty Dorothy, a city girl unwillingly transplanted to her Aunt Em’s (Melody A. Betts) farm in Kansas. When a tornado deposits Dorothy and her house in the land of the Munchkins, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Deborah Cox) and Addaperle, the Good Witch of the South (Allyson Kaye Daniel) send Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road to get the Wizard of Oz (Wayne Brady) to send the girl home. Along the way, she befriends the Scarecrow (Avery Wilson), a loose-limbed creation who longs to have a brain; the Tinman (Polanco Jones, Jr., subbing for Phillip Johnson Richardson), who requires a heart to feel emotions again; and the Lion (Kyle Ramar Freeman), who lacks courage. They are opposed in their journey by Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (Betts, in a dual role). Evillene’s minions — the seductive, somnolent Poppies and the fierce Kalidahs — fail in stopping the foursome from reaching the Emerald City. The Wiz promises to give them what they want – but only if they murder Evillene.

Under the direction of Schele Williams, the cast forgoes the urge to play the story — filled though it is with humorous lines – for laughs. As long as Dorothy and her friends perceive their “flaws” as real, they are real. In working together to help and encourage each other they help themselves as well.

Every character has their song to sing. Dorothy’s songs mark her transition from sullen, lonely child to someone with a fresh understanding of all her new life has to offer. They include “Soon As I Get Home”, the show’s opening number, which with a change of lyrics becomes the anthemic “Home” which ends the show. Dorothy’s duet with Aunt Em, “The Feeling We Once Had”, expresses their longing for mutual emotional healing. Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion each have an “I want” song – “You Can’t Win”, “What Would I Do If I Could Feel”, and “Mean Old Lion”. “Ease on Down the Road”, repeated throughout the journey to the Emerald City, is a lively tune designed to lift the travelers’ weary spirits. The big chorus numbers, exuberantly choreographed by Jaquel Knight — “He’s the Wiz”, “The Emerald City” (with music by Timothy Graphenreed), and “Everybody Rejoice” (with music and lyrics by Luther Vandross) — are lively showstoppers. Evillene’s bad-tempered “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” is balanced by Glinda’s gently supportive “Believe in Yourself”, while the Wizard does his own diva turn replete with backup singers in “Meet the Wizard”.

The design team has gone all out to create the visual extravaganza that is the show’s world, from the flat grayness of Kansas to the otherworldly color of the land of Oz. Scenic designer Hannah Beachler, in collaboration with video/projection designer Daniel Brodie, lighting designer Ryan J. O’Gara, and sound designer Jon Weston, have come up with a smoothly transitioning journey-scape from Munchkinland through the fields and forests of Oz to the dazzling Emerald City and the Wicked Witch’s nightmare-red castle. Not to be outdone, costume designer Sharen Davis has come up with a kaleidoscope of color and fanciful design for the unique clothing worn by each of the denizens of Oz. Kirk Cambridge Del-Pesche’s makeup designs help enhance the fantastic appearances of the Scarecrow, Tinman, Lion, and Wicked Witch.

Like so many others, I have fond memories of the original filmed version of The Wizard of Oz. I was present some fifty-odd years ago when the magic of The Wiz first poured out on stage. Seeing this new version of The Wiz has reignited the wonder inside me, as I’m sure it will do for you. I cannot more strongly urge you to see this musical fairy tale (for grownups as well as kids). Come on, ease on down, ease on down the road to visit The Wiz!

The Wiz is presented at the Marquis Theatre, 210 West 46th Street in New York through Aug. 18, 2024. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to wizmusical.com.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.