In comedies, their outrageousness breeds humor - bawdy, ironic, slapstick or otherwise. In tragedies, their wickedness triggers the action. In musicals, their depravity is celebrated in song. Don’t tell me it ain’t necessarily so. The dramatic impact of villains is often magnified by costume and make-up designers, as well as other members of the creative team. The vibrant personalities of villains demand our attention. We don’t have to admire them to acknowledge their magnetism. (Walt Disney built an entertainment empire based on these principles.)
Think of Fagin (“Oliver”) or Cruella De Vil (“101 Dalmations”) - despicable rogues. Still, isn’t there a tiny part of us that secretly admires the ingenuity, persistence and unmitigated gall of villains? Ultimately, we want them to suffer, but not before they strut their stuff. Not before they provoke our indignation, allowing us to bask in the glow of moral superiority.
In “The Wiz”, Evillene is the most flamboyant character. She’s the Wicked Witch of the West. Raphaelle Darden creates a gorgon who revels in her loathsomeness. With a persistent withering glare, she has no redeeming qualities and we like it that way.
Darden is riveting. Shut up! I was sorry to see her melt away so soon. Evillene’s signature song, “[Don’t Nobody Bring Me] No Bad News” brings down the house. Its boisterous melody makes me want to jump up and dance. When Evillene sings, her underlings cower. We smile knowingly. Some poor soul will be forced to bring Evillene bad news and we’re eager to see her to pounce. She may be limited to one scene, but her venomous presence permeates the whole story in this musical retelling of L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”.
Dorothy (Sarah Stephens) is the lead. Her angelic voice is ideal for the role. Dorothy is a goody two shoes. In this case, the two shoes are a pair of magic silver slippers she acquires after her house in Kansas (it belongs to her Aunt and Uncle) is uprooted by a tornado and crushes to death the Wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy is hailed as a hero by the locals. What locals? Dorothy has arrived in Oz. Like Alice’s Wonderland, Oz is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. The girl is understandably eager to return home to Kansas. But how?
Dorothy’s quest is the backbone of the story. What enthralls us are her quirky companions and their adventures together. Her companions are a ragtag triumvirate – Scarecrow (Ian Coulter-Buford), Tin Man (Keith Tyrone) and Lion (Herman Gordon). Like Dorothy, each has a burning desire. Scarecrow longs for a brain, Tin Man yearns for a heart and Lion is 2 quarts low on courage. Can the Wiz (Cedric Neal) help them?
Tyrone, Gordon and Coulter-Buford are multi-talented and well cast. As Lion, Gordon adopts a gruff voice and blustering manner comically antithetical to the character’s cowardly antics. The actor knows how to milk it. Watch him groom his blondish dreadlocks. Meow! Like a pampered kitty, Lion expects to be the center of attention … and usually is.
Scarecrow’s role is more nuanced. Colter-Buford brings a bittersweet quality to the character’s cautious optimism. In a cleverly choreographed “spaghetti legs” routine, the actor seems to be channeling the spirit of actor Ray Bolger. Despite his spindly appendages, our Scarecrow is ready to join Dorothy. It’s a joy to watch them “ease on down the road” to the syncopated rhythms of the show’s most recognizable song.
The rusted Tin Man delivers pure comedy in his solo, “Slide some Oil to Me.” It begins:
Slide some oil to me.
Let it trickle down my spine.
If you don’t have STP,
Crisco will be just fine.
Tyrone’s Tin Man is transformed from a squeaky heap of metal to a loyal champion of Dorothy’s. While Dorothy’s motley trio provides laughs, her character supplies hope and poignancy. Her ballads are sung robustly by Stephens, a fragile looking girl with powerful chops.
Director Ron Himes’ affection for “The Wiz” is evident throughout this hip play scripted by William F. Brown and scored by Charlie Smalls, with music ranging from raucous to heartbreaking and lyrics to match. The musical, designed for an all-Black cast, retells the classic children’s tale from an African-American perspective. The characters are infused with that cultural awareness. It was a bold move in 1975 and it paid off with seven Tony Awards.
The production values in Himes’ creation are stellar and the supporting cast is diligent. Their collective talent is highlighted as they personify the tornado, the poppy fields and the yellow brick road. This personification is a high concept that generates vivid costumes, great choreography, and visual excitement.
Toward the end of Act II, the primary focus shifts abruptly from Dorothy to the Wiz. His prominence is inflated by grandiosity, flashiness and speechifying. Neal delivers a thrilling performance. At the same time, I find the authors’ self-indulgent detour emotionally disruptive.
Eventually, our attention is redirected back to Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow, whose desires are fulfilled. Dorothy’s needs are finally addressed, but the libretto is prolonged with heartfelt messages we have already gleaned. The effect seems anticlimactic. This is a structural problem in text, not production.
Despite the book’s flaws, I had a blast. I head home humming “Ease on Down the Road”. Still humming. “The Wiz” runs through June 30th at The Grandel Theatre, located at 3610 Grandel Square, and then re-opens July 13th-28th with J. Samuel Davis as The Wiz, Leslie Johnson as the Tinman, and Alicia Reve as the Scarecrow. For information, you may call 314-534-3810 or visit www.theblackrep.org.
[NOTE: the following actors replaced the original performers for the July run of the show: J. Samuel Davis as The Wiz, Leslie Johnson as the Tinman, and Alicia Reeve as the Scarecrow.