🎭 “Believe in Yourself” | The Wiz @ BIH/Pantages

The Wiz (Broadway in Hollywood)There’s an important lesson that is taught in the musical The Wiz (which we saw last night at Broadway in Hollywood/Pantages Theatre): Believe in Yourself. Dorothy is supposed to learn, while out on the road, that the things she needed to survive and thrive were in herself all the time. She just needed to trust herself and see them. It is a lesson that this pre-Broadway tryout of The Wiz needs to learn: trust the material, and do it justice, and it will bring you home happier than when you left. But if you fail to discover your smarts, your heart, and your courage along the way, you may be stuck in a fantasy land that is more charade than real.

I’m probably one of the dwindling number of folks who saw the original version of The Wiz when it was on the road: it was at the Ahmanson Theatre the summer I graduated from high school. We didn’t have all the original cast, but we had some key folks: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Andre de Shields, Ted Ross. I subsequently got the cast album, and fell in love with it. It had such energy and pop. “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” had me from that opening piano vamp; it is currently #24 in my Top 50 Most Played Songs out of the 56,000+ songs in my library. “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard” grabs you from those opening horns and drums, and never lets you go (the recording I linked was from the opening night back in 1975, and you can just hear the energy). Even “Slide Some Oil to Me” has that energy and tempo, drawing heavily on the piano and the horns. The music and lyrics of Charlie Smalls, with some additional authors, combined with the original orchestrations of Harold Wheeler, just stun. Don’t want to go back that far? Listen to the energy of these songs in the somewhat recent live TV version (here’s No Bad News).

Now I’ve never seen the movie. I could never bring myself to transpose this story to New York, or age Dorothy 10+ years to satisfy some diva’s desire for screen time. But even there, the problem was the interpretation (more on that in a minute), not the musical interpretation. Mabel King and “No Bad News” still brings down the house. Even Nipsy Russell’s “Slide Some Oil To Me” isn’t bad.

But my wife and I both had the same comment with respect to the musical interpretation of this pre-Broadway tryout of The Wiz: It was tepid. The music lacked tempo. It lacked energy. It lacked horns and piano (I’m sorry, but one trumpet and one trombone does not a powerful horn section make). It gave the feeling that the director (Schele Williams) and the orchestrator (Joseph Joubert) were going for a Bluesy field, as opposed to the Jive Jazz of the original. It does not work—this show needs to up the tempo if it is going to make it. Of the faster songs in the show, only two got it right: Kyle Ramar Freeman’s performance of the Lion in “Mean Ole Lion” was spot-on; and the ensemble’s energy in “Everybody Rejoice” was great. However, for the slower numbers that were more traditional R&B, the interpretations were great. Nichelle Lewis (Dorothy)’s rendition of “Home” was wonderful, and Melody A. Bett (Aunt Em)’s was great with “The Feeling We Once Had”. Bett’s is a great example: Great on the slow number, but from the opening notes of her rendition of “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News”, you knew the tempo was off. The voice was there. The energy wasn’t.

The director also failed to trust the material. The problem was not the added and material by Amber Ruffin. Those did a great job of updating the characters. No, the problem was the more fundamental changes to the material. Songs were added (or restored) based either on the movie or recent productions (for example, “You Can’t Win”). Songs were rearranged; notably “What Could I Do If I Could Feel”, the Scarecrow’s introduction in the first act, became “We’re Gonna Make It” in the second act. “Wonder, Wonder Why” was added from the 1984 revival. A totally different version of the Tornado Dance was used. I’m not sure it helped. “You Can’t Win” was cut in Detroit in the original Broadway version; it was added back to the movie because it showcased Jackson. The song still isn’t right.

But the problem with the trust in the material goes beyond just the music—it goes to the story. As it was so long ago, I reviewed the synopsis of the original Broadway version. The original stage show set aside many of the “additions” that came in the 1939 movie, and hewed closer to the original L. Frank Baum material. William F. Brown (the original book writer, adapting the Baum material and not the movie), preserved many of the things from the book that never made it to the movie: Munchkin land was blue, Glinda’s land was red, the land of the Winkie’s was yellow, and the Emerald City was only green because you were required to wear green glasses upon entry. But here, the director’s vision muddled things around. Instead of the Munchkins, we got a New Orleans style wake for Evamean, the Wicked Witch of the East… and we get both Addaperle and Glinda. Instead of an opening with both Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, we get just Em (and with a pre-prise of “Soon as I Get Home”). We get a tepid tornado. We get a strange scene with the poppies (which had a different way of resolution in the original). We get drastic cuts in the battle with the witch in the second half. We get a completely different resolution with the Wiz in the second act, and how the characters learn that they always had the attributes they were seeking. We get the WInkies in bright multicolored T-shirts, vs the yellow that is the tradition of Winkie-land.

In some ways, it is as if the director was cutting things to save costs, reduce the scenery required for the road, and perhaps reduce the cast size. The orchestra was certainly cut back from the size it was in the 1970s. There are ways to work within a budget. Skimping in the wrong places is not one of them.

This production is on the road to Broadway. I think it opens there in April 2024. Fixing the tempo of the songs is something that is doable, and is something that I hope they listen to the reviewers and fix. Fixing the changes they made to the story is a lot harder, and probably can’t be done. Are these story changes enough to torpedo the show? They will be problematic for purists like me who love the original. But I do think the story changes won’t be noticed by younger audiences, who remember only the movie (which was little like the original stage production), or the live TV production (which was only broadcast twice).

Some of the other production aspects were, to lack a better term, workable. The choreography by Jaquel Knight was good and pleasant to watch; but it rarely wowed or went above and beyond. The set design was clearly built to fit the touring life well, but there was still the over-dependence on projections. Projections at times can simplify things and lower costs, but they can also make it harder for subsequent regional life of a show.

To be clear: I’m not saying this was a bad show. It was very enjoyable. But it could have been so much more. It just had under-developed heart, brain, and courage. But there were many pieces that did work.

First and foremost, the cast was spectacular. Nichelle Lewis was a knockout as Dorothy: she got the characterizations down pat, and boy could that girl sing. From her opening pre-prise to the closing note of “Home”, she grabbed you. Her companions on the road were equally strong, most notably Kyle Ramar Freeman’s Lion; but Avery Wilson’s Scarecrow and Phillip Johnson Richardson’s Tinman were also great. Although the tempo was wrong, the singing and characterizations in “Slide Some Oil To Me” were great. Melody A. Betts’ opening number as Aunt Em (“The Feeling We Once Had”) was a perfect characterization; her voice was great in “No Bad News”, even if the tempo was off. Wayne Brady was strong as the Wiz, especially in “Y’all Got It” (although he didn’t quite have the energy in “Meet the Wizard”). Deborah Cox’s Glinda did spectacular with “Believe in Yourself”. So the talent and casting was spot-on.

Also strong was the costuming: The bright colors popped in numerous sequences, but even more notable was the opening number. It was costumed to make everyone appear to be black and white, making the transition to color work. I can’t recall if the original did this. It was certainly a takeoff of the technicolor transition of the original, but this one works. Notably, unlike the movie, when Dorothy returns to Kansas for the closing scene, the color has returned to the landscape.

The additional humorous material added by Amber Ruffin worked well. This show has many laugh out loud moments, and has much more humor than did the original.

So, let’s get to ultimate question: Should you see this? If you want to get a sense of what the original 1975 version was like, I’d say to watch the Live TV version (skip the movie: I still think the transition to New York and a 24 year old schoolteacher was wrong wrong wrong). However, if you want to see some remarkable performances and a … different … take on the material (more bluesy, less in-your-face up tempo jazz), this is worth seeing. Hell, it’s worth seeing just to see the star-to-be that is Nichelle Lewis. That girl is going to go far. It’s also worth seeing for Kyle Ramar Freeman’s lion.

The Wiz continues at Broadway in Hollywood/Pantages Theatre through March 3, 2024. I understand the run is close to sold out, but tickets may be available through the BiH Website. Note that Broadway in Hollywood will be announcing their 2024-2025 season on February 23; it is at that time that autorenew subscribers (like me) will have a chance to purchase tickets for the return of Hamilton (over the summer) and Wicked (December 2024). I have guesses as to which shows will show up based on what I know is touring. If I had to guess, I’m sure & JulietShuckedSome Like It HotNew York New York and Back to the Future will show up, although one of those could end up at the Ahmanson. The revival of Sweeny Todd might to to the Pantages, although it seems more like an Ahmanson show; Life of Pi is certainly more of an Ahmanson show. I’m not sure where Kimberly Akimbo or A Beautiful Noise will end up. The former is a toss up; the latter is more Pantages material but it all depends on the other shows they pick. So, yes, I’m looking forward to the announcement.


The Wiz. Book by William F. Brown, Music and Lyrics by Charlie Smalls. Adaopted from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum. Additional Material for this production by Amber Ruffin. Directed by Schele Williams; Choreography by Jaquel Knight.

Cast (∈ denotes ensemble): Nichelle Lewis Dorothy; Avery Wilson Scarecrow; Phillip Johnson Richardson Tinman; Melody A. Betts Aunt Em / Evillene; Wayne Brady The Wiz; Deborah Cox Glinda; Maya Bowles ; Shayla Alayre Caldwell ; Jay Copeland ; Allyson Kay Daniel Addaperle, ∈; Judith Franklin ; Collin Heyward ; Amber Jackson , Dance Captain; Olivia “Melo. J” Jackson ; Christina Jones ; Polanco Jones Jr ; Kolby Kindle ; Mariah Lyttle ; Kareem Marsh ; Anthony Murphy ; Cristina Raé ; Avilon Trust Tate ; Keenan D. Washington . Swings and Standbys: Michael Samarie George Swing; Matthew Sims Jr. Swing; Timothy Wilson Swing; Alan Mingo Jr. The Wiz – Standby.

Production and Creative Team: Joseph Joubert Music Supervision, Orchestrations, Music Arrangements; Allen René Louis Vocal Arrangements, Music Arrangements; Adam Blackstone Dance Music Arranger; Hannah Beachler Scenic Design; Sharen Davis Costume Design; Ryan J. O’Gara Lighting Design; Jon Weston Sound Design; Daniel Brodie Projection Design; Charles G. Lapointe Hair and Wig Design; Kirk Cambridge-Del Pesche Makeup Design; Tara Rubin Casting Casting Director; Paul Byssainthe Jr. Music Director; Kathy Fabian Production Properties Supervisor; Michael Aarons Music Coordinator; Tavia Rivée Jefferson Assoc. Director; Anthony “Kanec” Carr Assoc. Choreographer; Candace Brown Asst. Choreographer; Ralph Stan Lee Production Stage Manager; Heather Hogan Stage Manager; David S. Cohen Asst. Stage Manager; Foresight Theatrical General Manager.

Orchestra (≡ indicates local): Paul Byssainthe Jr Conductor/Keyboard 1; Darryl G. Ivey Asst Conductor/Keyboard 2; Trevor Holder Drums; Sean Franz ≡ Reed 1 (Flute / Piccolo / Clarinet / Oboe / English Horn / Alto Sax / Tenor Sax); Ken Fisher ≡ Reed 2 (Tenor Sax / Clarinet / Bari Sax / Bassoon / Bass Clarinet); Katie Faraudo ≡ French Horn; Aaron Smith ≡ Trumpet / Flugelhorn; Nick Daley ≡ Trombone / Bass Trombone; Linda Taylor ≡ Guitar (Electric / Nylon & Steel String Acoustic); Chris Thigpen ≡ Bass (Electric / Acoustic); Danny Taylor ≡ Percussion; Dolores Duran ≡ Keyboard Sub; Eric Heinly ≡ Orchestra Contractor; Michael Aarons and M2Music Music Coordinator; Anja Wood Assoc. Music Coordinator.

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Administrivia: I am not a professional critic. I’m a cybersecurity professional, a roadgeek who does a highway site and a podcast about California Highways, and someone who loves live performance. I buy all my own tickets, unless explicitly noted otherwise. I do these writeups to share my thoughts on shows with my friends and the community. I encourage you to go to your local theatres and support them (ideally, by purchasing full price tickets, if you can afford to do so). We currently subscribe or have memberships at: Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson TheatreBroadway in Hollywood/Pantages TheatrePasadena PlayhouseGeffen Playhouse (Mini-Subscription); 5-Star Theatricals. We’re looking for the right intimate theatre to subscribe at — it hasn’t been the same since Rep East died (it’s now The Main, and although it does a lot of theatre, it doesn’t have seasons or a resident company), and post-COVID, most 99-seaters aren’t back to doing seasons (or seasons we like). I used to do more detailed writeups; here’s my current approach.

Upcoming ♦ Theatre / ♣ Music / ◊ Other Live Performance – Next 90ish Days (⊕ indicates ticketing is pending):

On the Theatrical Horizon:

Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica has announced their Mainstage 2024 Season, and it includes Bat Boy the Musical running Sept 28 through October 18. We saw Bat Boy back when CSUN did it in 2014; it is a wonderful musical about how a society treats outsiders. Conundrum Theatre Company will be doing Urinetown The Musical in mid to late March 2024 at the Broadwater; this is a great musical, but we can’t fit it into the schedule (nor does my wife care to see it again). However, if you haven’t seen it, it is worth seeing. I also just learned about a theatre company in Fullerton, Maverick Theater. They are doing Evil Dead: The Musical , which is a hoot if you’ve never seen it (we’ve seen it twice). They also have some interesting other stuff on their season, and we might drive down for Santa Claus Vs The Martians in November.


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