An Amazing Piece of Theatre: A Review of “The Wiz” at Virginia Stage Company
April 24, 2017
Virginia Stage Company eased on down the road to the Norfolk State University Theatre Department, and their students brought it home to the Wells Theatre.
A partnership between Hampton Roads’ most prestigious professional theatre and an award-winning college theatre program, we have an amazing piece of theatre happening right now in downtown Norfolk, and The Wiz is not one to be missed.
Retelling L. Frank Baum’s classic 1900 children’s book through the lens of African-American culture, we find an almost identical story; Dorothy gets caught in a twister that blows her from Kansas to Oz, and only The Wiz can help her return. While our favorite characters and scenes are still there, the funk and soul melodies take the heart of the story to a new level. I’ve always loved The Wiz, but had never been able to see it fully staged. I came in with high expectations and I was not disappointed.
Partnering local college students with theatre professionals might seem like a recipe for disaster to some, but watching these students shine on stage and drinking in the palpable air of excitement I realized just how brilliant of a move this was for both theatre companies. During his introduction, producing artistic director Tom Quaintance shared with the preview audience that they had intended to cast their leads from New York and fill in the ensemble with students, but the local talent was so strong they did most of their casting through NSU. I applaud this decision, and the outcomes on stage were well worth it. He also noted that this was a preview, and that he anticipated theatrical perfection by the official open of the run. While at times I noticed a nervous energy among the younger performers, I am confident that by now Quaintance’s prediction has already come true.
The most captivating NSU student is without doubt junior Theatre Performance student Jonathan Cooper as the Tin Man. His voice is exceptional, his mannerisms well chosen, and his presence endearing. His introductory number, Slide Some Oil to Me, is heartfelt and fun, but it is the Act 1 closing number, What Would I Do if I Could Feel, where Mr. Cooper is at his best. Also impressive is senior Meredith Noel as Addaperle, the first of the two good witches, with perfect comedic timing. I wish the script allowed her more stage time as she is a joy to watch.
Darius Nelson absolutely owns to role of The Cowardly Lion, imbuing the character with the right amount of fiery passion and an adorable fleeting bravery. This will be a spoiler alert for .00006% of you, but the Lion gets his wish for courage at the end, and that final scene is dripping with joy. It is the second most difficult emotion to portray in my opinion, but Nelson infuses every moment of stage-time with it. Like Cooper, he is 100% in character, and the audience is taken along for the journey. Excellent work.
Rounding out the iconic yellow brick squad is Alana Houston as Dorothy and Matthew Jackson as the Scarecrow. Houston, a high school senior from Elizabeth City, pulls the innocence of Judy Garland and the voice of a young Diana Ross into a strong lead. In case you missed it, SHE’S A HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR! Remember her name, Hampton Roads – I’ll bet this won’t be the last time we hear it. Jackson does well as the Scarecrow, though at times his high energy seems to weaken his voice, resulting in some mumbled lines and lyrics. I hope to see both of these young actors continue to grow in their craft and deliver a stronger performance each night.
Two of the highlights of the evening are Broadway veterans Nicole Powell as Aunt Em/Glinda, and LaionaMichelle as The Wicked Witch of the West Evillene. Clearly the strongest performers on the stage, they both exuded a sense of collaboration, and both were active in engaging their fellow actors on the stage. Powell’s voice and presence are both exceptionally regal.
It is Michelle’s incarnation of evil that steals the show. She is onstage for maybe 12 minutes and seems to hardly move a muscle, but her falcon-like stare and decisive movements command the audience’s attention. Her number Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News is both hilarious and terrifying, full of comedic moments set to a powerhouse voice. Overall, she delivers an unforgettable performance. Brava!
There is some lack of focus in the ensemble at first, with the tornado ballet coming to mind. The choreography is gorgeous, but several of the dancers seemed to be hyper-focused on the moves and not the story these moves tell. I hope that as this show progresses these dancers lose themselves completely in the beauty they are telling. I do have to mention that dancers Robert Garris and Tiyana Peters set the bar beautifully. The scenes in the Emerald City were cohesive and played well. I think by this point the nerves had passed and the actors were clearly having fun. Their energy was infectious, and by the time they ran into the audience for Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day) I was one of the many clapping along, and I never do that. Thank you to the cast for bringing such a joyful piece of theatre to us. I believe now more than ever, we need it.
The directing partnership of NSU’s Director of Drama Anthony Stockard and VSC’s Associate Producer Patrick Mullins is brilliant and cohesive, and I applaud both companies. Hampton Roads needs art like this. VSC’s production team brings the story to life with exceptional flair, and overall the show holds wonder after stagecraft wonder. The lighting design by Jason Amato is mostly dazzling, save for some shaded faces and lost spaces in Act 1. Also, Korey Washington’s set design is both purposeful and imaginative, but I did note an area upstage center that seemed to be a void at times in Act 1. Whether a design or directing choice, I couldn’t help but to be bothered by the unused space. The space is used wisely all through the second act, housing the gates of the Emerald City and The Wiz himself, and overall the staging is full of delightful moments.
I did take issue with the sound, as the orchestra completely overpowered the vocalists for most of the first act. I did notice a drastic improvement following intermission, and hope it was just a fluke of the preview. During intermission, I overheard a fellow patron state that she couldn’t hear half of it and wasn’t exactly sure what was going on, but she was having “the time of her life” and wasn’t going anywhere. The prowess of the show as a whole flexes its muscles and keeps the audience captive.
Regarding Jeni Schaefer’s costuming, only one word can capture it: breathtaking. The drab and utilitarian world of Dorothy and her family is quickly supplanted by the magic of Oz when the Munchkins and Addaperle take the stage to greet her, creating a fascinating juxtaposition of shapes and colors to Dorothy’s denim overalls. Every character is unique and somehow familiar as they parade through the yellow brick journey: the flying monkeys are primal and ferocious, Glinda is positively radiant, and the citizens of the Emerald City look as sharp and unique (if not more so) than the citizens of that other Oz-inspired musical. From a traditional West-African gown and headdress to a flashy jeans/vest/ball cap combo, every individual of the Emerald City stands alone, yet somehow each one weaves together into a brilliant and diverse tapestry, perfectly capturing in a visual the ideals of Oz: diversity, harmony, and a beautiful celebration of every shade of green. Schaefer and her team should be incredibly proud as they have created the most scrumptious buffet I have ever seen on any stage in the 757.
Overall, The Wiz is wonderful. As Houston drove the final notes of the show to the curtain call, the house erupted in applause. A standing ovation wasn’t enough to give these brilliant artists, hence the reason I’m telling you this: Buy your ticket and get swept away! This show is not one to be missed.