A noble effort with flashes of amusement and an abundance of talent, the new version of The Wiz on Thursday night couldn’t overcome a few key flaws and the fact that this simply isn’t a classic piece of material.
The Wiz Live was the latest production by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the men who brought you NBC’s other recent musicals, The Sound of Music Live! (2013) and Peter Pan Live! (2014). The Wiz Live! was better than Pan but not as involving as Sound of Music, despite the fact that newcomer Shanice Williams, as Dorothy, sang with an expressiveness superior to Sound star Carrie Underwood.
The journey of Dorothy, the Tin Man (Ne-Yo), the Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley) and David Alan Grier’s Cowardly Lion to visit the Wizard (Queen Latifah) in the land of Oz is a strong narrative backbone upon which to rest a musical. The idea of seeking out some powerful wisdom that will grant intelligence, courage, and freedom, only to realize that these qualities reside inside, not outside, oneself—that’s a potent, enduring theme.
The central problem is its immediate source material. The Wiz as created for Broadway in 1974, and adapted for the movies (starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson) in 1978, simply does not have a great body of music to place it in the first rank of musicals. Here’s a challenge: Name a song from The Wiz other than “Ease On Down the Road.” “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” maybe, but that’s about it.
Add to this the fact that The Wiz hasn’t had much of an afterlife as a revival in prominent venues where a contemporary audience would find it, and that there’s at least one if not two generations of people who didn’t grow up with the 1939 Victor Fleming-directed classic The Wizard of Oz running through their heads, and you’ve got a musical that seems like it ought to be a beloved masterwork, but isn’t. (The Wiz is almost wholly based on the 1939 Wizard of Oz, not L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.)
So that’s the challenge this TV version had before it even went on the air. To its great credit, there were a number of excellent elements to Thursday night’s Wiz. The costumes were phenomenal, especially the Cowardly Lion’s rich gray fur and the Scarecrow’s layered-straw look. The use of a proscenium stage with shifting projections behind the players worked very well. The choreography by Fatima Robinson was fluid and imaginative, and Kenny Leon’s direction did a fine job of mastering that tricky hybrid of camera close-ups contrasted with framing the screen for the big, crowd-filled production numbers. And I liked the animatronic Wiz-face from which emerged Queen Latifah’s Wiz, who was more affecting after she was exposed as the fraud the Wiz is, than when she was caked with green make-up playing the egomaniacal Wiz. Uzo Aduba was positively adorable as Glinda the Good Witch. And in the small role of Auntie Em, Stephanie Mills—Broadway’s original-Wiz Dorothy—was superb: Why hasn’t this woman had a sitcom or a drama built around her?
By far the best performances were given by Grier and Mary J. Blige as Evillene, Wicked Witch of the West. Grier as the Lion was not only funny in his own manner but also gave a sly homage to Bert Lahr’s Wizard of Oz lion with his quivering-jaw movements, and Grier’s undulating dance with the Poppies was clever. Blige’s Evillene was spectacularly mean; Blige shone in the comic exchanges with her underlings the Winkies, and she spat out “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” with vigorous viciousness.
But the updated book by Harvey Fierstein had some limp jokes and a few weird, straining-for-hipness phrases. Common was wasted in the non-role of the gatekeeper to Oz. For considerable stretches of time, there were too many dud melodies to sit through, and the use of Cirque du Soleil as the Winged Warriors was brief, dull, and looked more chaotic than it probably was. More crucially, Williams, the show’s 19 year-old discovery, does not have a very expressive face; her singing was fine but her acting was lacking. It didn’t help that the character of Dorothy has to sing some of the most pedestrian songs. “Be A Lion,” for instance, is a big showstopper ballad that’s hollow in the melody department, but Williams and Grier sang the hell out of it.
All in all, there was a lot of talent laboring heroically in The Wiz Live! to enliven material that just didn’t come to life very often.