Virginia Stage Company and Norfolk State offer big fun, big voices in a big show, "The Wiz"
By Mal Vincent
April 20, 2017
The Wells Theatre, home of Virginia Stage Company, is a place to have some fun.
“The Wiz” is the “really big show” that Stage Company subscribers have been waiting for – a long time. It’s all singing, all dancing, all sassy wit in a way that feels more spontaneous than rehearsed, which is refreshing.
With a cast of 50, this may be the nearest thing to a spectacular on this stage since the original “Ben-Hur” film ran the chariot race with two live horses here in the 1920s.
The energy is great. The singers are belters supreme. The dancers are lithe and fully capable of suggesting a tornado. The band (10 strong) lays down a funky beat and is gloriously loud, though sometimes it sounds a little more like a marching band than an orchestra-pit ensemble.
This lively show is a delightful antidote to the traumas and social messages we’ve had on this stage in the past 10 seasons: Racism, local politics, terrorists, this-ism and that-ism – often played by casts of one, two or four. Four is apparently a huge cast when you consider the bills associated with Actors’ Equity Association rules, plus the fact that New York actors have to be fed and housed (they seem to require such luxuries). With an admirable record of critically praised outings (praised right here), VSC is well overdue for consideration for the regional Tony Award. However, while apparently blessed with wealthy and generous donors, the company still has to put fannies in the seats. Or else.
This season’s use of high school and college performers can be seen as community engagement or cost cutting. Maybe both.
The ticket buyers don’t know Equity from beans. After all, the New York imports are not big-name draws like a Bernadette Peters.
With the exception of some three New York imports, the cast of “The Wiz” is made up of students from Norfolk State University’s theater program under the direction of Anthony Stockard. Earlier this season, the cast of “Oliver Twist” was made up largely of talent from the Governor’s School ’s performing arts program. Those who toiled for decades to establish the area’s first fully professional Equity company may ask where the company is going in this trend.
How do you present a big show in this way and not make it look as if you’re putting on a school play? The answer, amply provided, is what we see on this stage through April 30.
These performers don’t look like “kids” until, maybe, the final curtain call when their thrill in just being on a stage pours out. They look professional. They perform like professionals. This is, by any account, the most well-rounded musical production yet done in this company’s history (and yes, I’ve seen them all).
The fact that the score itself doesn’t deserve any real reverence only emphasizes the quality of the performances. The joy comes somewhat against the odds. “The Wiz” won the Tony Award as best musical in 1975, but the movie version in 1978 was a flop. The casting of Diana Ross, then 33, as Dorothy did not go over well.
But as played here, this musical is fun. There are new, irreverent ad libs such as the Lion’s references to “Cats” and “The Lion King.” (Did someone go uncredited for the near-rewrite?) The Lion, as played by Darius Nelson, is a hoot. The part is always the scene-stealer, but he brings to it little asides that suggest he is cooler than the show itself. Dorothy, to him, is “Little Mama” as he bemoans the fact that “I don’t see no other cat begging for this gig.” When threatened, he defends himself by declaring that he is “an endangered species.” We hope not.
Another favorite is Adaperle, a witch who is something of a bag lady and who describes herself as “a good-time girl” even though most of her magic doesn’t work. “I ain’t much into disappearing lately. I been taking the bus.” She is played, with wonderful humor, by Meredith Noel. The Tin Man is a lively tap dancer, Jonathan Cooper, who has a voice too. Matthew Jackson brings a fine hint of sympathy and poignancy to the victimized Scarecrow.
The belter Divas, Glinda, the Wiz and Evillene, some of them professionals from New York, tend to melt together in their belting. Their voices deserve better songs.
The standout is Evillene, suggested with campy hatefulness by Laiona Michelle when she sings “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.” She calls herself a “liberated woman” as she has her minions kiss her foot. The only bad thing is that she has only one big number. Eventually, her Evillene becomes a “liquidated woman.” You know the plot.
Nicole Powell is miscast as what should be a matronly Auntie Em, but fares well as Glinda and delivers the show’s anthem, “Believe in Yourself.” (But who can ever forget the inimitable Lena Horne styling it in the otherwise awful movie version? )
Alana Houston is pleasantly sweet and in full voice, as compared to the often overdone Dorothy of some lesser productions. Done up in overalls, she sports silver pumps. (Red, apparently, is so yesterday.) Her big moment is the finale, in which she proves she’s got the voice. She makes Dorothy likable, which is job enough. (Why would any girl want to go back to a farm in Kansas when she has Oz? I’ve wondered that since I was a little thing at the movies. Not all that long ago.)
The flying monkeys get out into the audience, which is enough to make you feel defensive. The tornado is suggested by dancers, led by a fine troupe choreographed by Kavin Grant. The directors, both Stockard and VSC’s Patrick Mullins, have a fine knack of providing something visual to go with each vocal solo – dancing crows with the Scarecrow, a trio of Yellow Brick Road dancers. Toto, seen only in a dash – apparently chasing a treat backstage – was played at the performance I saw by a cockapoo named Ava.
Korey Washington’s scenic designs are both imaginative and practical, from the Wiz’s neon look to the Scarecrow’s cornfield. Jeni Schaefer’s costumes are knockouts (making us think how big her budget was). The sound by Danny Erdberg is flawless, right down to crickets heard in rural Kansas.
All in all, this show is one to see – although we suspect such “guest company” bookings are more a stunt than a regular thing. After seasons of commendable deep thought, no one is going to complain about something being overdone and overly fun.
In the words of Mae West: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”