Review: Uplifting, infectious energy makes ‘The Wiz’ a magical experience

More than 40 years after it landed on Broadway, there’s still a whole lot of magic left in The Wiz. Behold and believe: Director Jay Berkow’s buoyant, utterly delightful Western Michigan University Theatre production of this African-American revamp of The Wizard of Oz conclusively proves Wicked does not have the market cornered when it comes to Oz-centric musicals.

With a few clever contemporary tweaks, a multitude of marvelous voices, a set by Sarah Reed that looks like the aftermath of an explosion at the rainbow factory, and a top-notch band that is always (as they used to say) in the pocket, this Wiz casts a fabulously funky spell.

“This show contains unapologetic singing,” the program warns, and that’s only half a joke. Berkow and Music Director Matthew Shabala have brought out dazzling vocals from the leads and augmented them with smoothly incorporated offstage backup singers who fill out the sound without overpowering the performer at center stage.

Just as importantly, they’ve helped the actors find the infectious joy in tunes like Ease On Down the Road, Everybody Rejoice/A Brand New Day and Y’all Got It!, each of which threatens to spark spontaneous dance parties in the aisles. It would be tough to top the jubilant dancers onstage, however: Monique Haley’s choreography is a sprightly mix of modern dance, hip-hop and more than a few moves straight outta Ye Olde Disco. While floor space is limited in the Williams Theatre, remarkably, the staging never feels hemmed in or claustrophobic.

One of the most inspired pieces of dance arrives early on, as daydreamy Dorothy (the effervescent Tiffany Hubbard) is swept away in a stunning tornado made up of whirling, sinuous chorus people. The jokes that keep William F. Brown’s script crackling (most of them from the original text, with several obviously added more recently) begin almost immediately afterward. Wiseacre witch Addapearle (Arizsia Staton) declines to help Dorothy get back home, noting “that comes under the heading of transporting a minor across state lines.”

So Dorothy has to hit the Yellow Brick Road — presented here as a crew of hard-hustling highway workers in saffron-colored hardhats and Velveeta-orange safety vests — where she soon meets up with a cheerful, clueless Scarecrow (Micah Hazel), a loose-limbed-when-lubricated Tin Man (Joriah Fleming) and a Lion (Troy D. Wallace) who attempts to hide his lack of courage beneath a showy fur coat and thick dreadlocks.

Hazel, Fleming and Wallace are a trio to reckon with, bringing as much personality and spirit to their singing and dancing as they do to their characterizations. Fleming shows off some James Brown steps and a disarming croon reminiscent of Marvin Gaye, while Hazel struts stylishly with a chorus line of crows in I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday, and Wallace is uproariously angsty as the neurotic would-be king of the jungle, complaining extensively about his unproductive therapy sessions.

At first, it seems like Dorothy may be outshone by her friends; it doesn’t help that Dorothy’s first solo is the sobby As Soon As I Get Home, the show’s most uninspired number. But when Hubbard finally gets the chance to let loose her sizzling soprano in Be a Lion, she seems effortlessly electrifying. As Wallace turns the song into a duet two-thirds of the way through, their combined force brings shivers of excitement, like an indoor fireworks spectacular.

Hubbard also brings just the right degree of sly sassiness to Dorothy without sacrificing her charm. And when she has to deliver Home, the show’s most enduring ballad, Hubbard takes everyone to church and brings them to their feet: Her shimmering final note is probably still soaring into the stratosphere.

Berkow takes light-hearted liberties with his portrayals of both the Wiz and the musical’s Wicked Witch of the West, Evillene, and the gambles pay off. Greg Jones (as the Wiz) and Cash Maciel (as Evillene, who sports a five-foot-long scarlet braid that doubles nicely as a whip) both know how to seize a stage and immediately win over an audience. So does Fox Worth, who harvests a bumper crop of laughs as the Emerald City’s extraordinarily eccentric Gatekeeper. Savannah Fisher’s glamourpuss Glinda and Emma Wineman’s long-suffering Aunt Em are also excellent, making memorable impressions during their brief appearances.

The Wiz benefits enormously from the imaginative hair and makeup work by Amanda Elliot, and the often eye-popping costumes designed by Kathryn Wagner, who offers up everything from Addapearle’s upscale-bag-lady look to the neon-green outfits for the Wiz’s acolytes that glow in black light during the Emerald City Ballet. Nor should we overlook the skateboarding Flying Monkeys, or the adorable Zoala as Toto (who got big laughs by barking reprimands at latecomers sneaking in during the Sunday matinee).

The Wiz is a wonderful wrap-up for WMU’s 2016-17 season and, to quote a lyric from Brand New Day: you owe it to yourself to check it out.

The Wiz
April 13-15, 20-22