Ashland Review: The Wiz

Jul 26, 2016

J. Cameron Barnett, Christiana Clark and Rodney Gardiner
Credit photo: Jennie Graham

“The Wiz,” a surprise Broadway hit over 40 years ago, has now landed on the outdoor stage at Ashland’s Allen Theatre. This funky black version of “The Wizard of Oz” won a Tony for best musical, but “Hamilton” it’s not.

This production directed by Robert O’Hara benefits from an excellent cast, brilliant costuming, a full orchestra and colorful projections. The best known song by composer-lyricist Charlie Smalls is “Ease on Down the Road.”
The book by William Brown is rather flat, with woefully underdeveloped characters. Let’s face it. The script is saddled to a beloved but simplistic tale of a hero’s journey and the importance of home. And believing in yourself. Mustn’t forget that overly repeated message.
In spite of minimal suspense, the first act is entertaining. As expected, Dorothy, played by Ashley Kelly, is blown away by a tornado. In a strange land she meets the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. And witches and the Wiz, and flying monkeys, who don’t really fly.
The most delightful scenes in the first act are Dorothy’s encounters with her soon-to-be companions. J. Cameron Barnett as the Scarecrow is fun and lovable. Rodney Gardner as the Tin Man nails two outstanding solos, one titillating and one heartfelt.
The Lion, made irresistible by Christiana Clark, sings in a sultry voice and dresses like a feline Lady GaGa.
But then we get to the second act. It seems all too easy to kill off the wicked witch Evillene early in the act, with not much to do after that. But the show must go on…and on, and on.
We don’t learn from it. There’s no contemporary viewpoint reflecting on social progress in the past 40 years, or lack of it. This production of “The Wiz” could play on Broadway, but it doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to merit a lavish production at the Shakespeare Festival.