I initially became enamored with the music, pageantry and message of “The Wiz” in the mid-’70s when, while visiting relatives in New York, my mother surprised me with tickets to the hit play — one that had already shattered racial barriers by emerging as the first Broadway musical to showcase African Americans in a positive light.
Incidentally, “The Wiz” during its initial run which began in 1975, remained on stage for almost 1,700 performances, also taking the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Now, nearly 40 years later, I found myself transported once again to that wonderful world of Oz where on the stage of Ford’s Theatre in Northwest, evil monkeys fly, little people called Munchkins teeter and totter, witches cast their lot for good or evil and where a little girl named Dorothy, after befriending a scarecrow, a tin man and a lion, finally learns a powerful lesson: there’s no place like home.
With the play’s director, Kent Gash, determined to add his personal touch to this story which fiercely and proudly celebrates both the love found within the Black family and the bonds that exist in our human community, this revival caused me to travel down my own Yellow Brick Road as I reflected on my own childhood and those beautiful Black men and women, many who are no longer among the living, in whose arms I could always find security and solace — my safety blankets in the time of storm.
The play follows the script closely in some scenes while in others it takes on a more modern cadence with language, swagger and antics more befitting today’s new age world of high-tech gadgets and apps — even one in which, as the wicked witch Evillene (Monique Midgett) reminds us during one of her incantations, a Black man has served as president of the United States and where Black history buffs pay homage to two warriors with similarly-sounding names: Shaka Zulu and Chaka Khan.
Other times, timely one-liners reach out specifically to younger members of the audience with references to “Black Panther” and Siri.
The cast, which Gash explained during an earlier interview, consists completely of local talent — some relative newcomers to the stage, others seasoned veterans — all of whom hold their own, staying true to their roles as originally conceived, but also allowed to season their characters with their own, unique flavors.
This is evident in the several delightful, dizzying dance scenes in which Hasani Allen as the Scarecrow is allowed to shine. Kevin McAllister uses his vocal chops to the fullest as the Tinman, first gliding up and down the scale in “Slide Some Oil to Me” before he renders a touching version of the heartfelt tune “What Would I Do if I Could Feel.”
Then there’s the Lion, always one of my favorite characters in the play and a role requiring an actor who can command the stage and confidently capture the attention of everyone in the theater. Christopher Michael Richardson, cast as the cowardly Lion, does not disappoint.
Finally, I must talk about Ines Nassara who takes on the challenging role of Dorothy.
Nassara can belt out a song as effortlessly as any other Dorothy before her ever has — including the incomparable Stephanie Mills who starred in the original Broadway production and the ageless diva, Diana Ross, who skipped and hopped through the streets of Oz with her “bestie” Michael Jackson by her side.
Nassara’s voice emotes the serene, soul-stirring joy of one clearly in touch with themselves, tuned in to their God-given gift. I cannot wait for another opportunity to see her sing and act in a play gives her even greater license to share her gifts.
There’s so much more in this play that made me smile again and again or sing softly as possible, of course, so as not to disturb those around me. But how could I help myself with scenes whose costumes brilliantly conceived by Kara Harmon take us to the shores of Africa, then to a Black church service during which the Spirit takes hold of the congregation.
From the beginning of the play and until the final chord sounds, I could not help but notice one young Black girl who sat one row in front of me and who could not contain herself as she swayed, laughed, snapped her fingers, stomped her foot and sang along as if her life depended on it.
“I just love music and dance and have been studying visual arts at Suitland High,” said Rei Martin, 15.
Rei added that while she has yet to catch the “acting bug” she knows that music will somehow always be part of her life. She attended the play along with other youth — friends or family members of about 20 adults, hearing and/or visually impaired, who live in the Greater Washington Area, some of whom receive support from The Metropolitan Washington Ear, Inc. and who were invited to attend by Ford’s Theatre. Their attendance was made possible through the generosity of Ford’s Theatre who even provided devices, so they could “hear and see” better.
There are a few places in the production that grind a bit too slowly, or which may be a little over the top but despite these infrequent glitches, this revival of “The Wiz” is worth its weight in gold. Go see for yourself!
Visit www.fords.org for tickets. “The Wiz” runs through May 12.