Last week was the television premiere of the long-awaited, much anticipated The Wiz LIVE staring Amber Riley, Ne-Yo, David Alan Grier, Common, Mary J Blige, Uzo Aduba, Stephanie Mills, Elijah Kelly and new comer Shanice Williams. I don’t know if you follow me on Twitter or not, but if you do, then you know that I was LOSING MY MIND over this amazing performance. Now that I’ve had a chance to calm down, let’s get into this review.
NBC announced earlier this year that The Wiz would be their next TV musical broadcast in honor of it’s 40th anniversary. This would make it NBC’s 3rd musical endeavor, after Peter Pan and The Sound of Music. Now I didn’t watch Peter Pan, and I didn’t have TV at the time to watch The Sound of Music, which happens to be my favorite movie. So I watched clips online and MAN was I displeased, as were my other Sound of Music fan-friends. The only part we could truly stomach was Audra MacDonald’s AMAZING performance of Climb Ev’ry Mountain. Other than that, it was not good. So of course I was nervous when NBC announced they would The Wiz would be their next victim–err, umm, production. However, hearing that Tony-award winning director Kenny Leon would be helming the production did make me feel a little better, but I was still skeptical, up until about a month or so ago when cast photos and trailers started hitting the internet. It look like it had potential, and Wiz fans all over the world could be heard praying that this wouldn’t be a flop.
Welp, our prayers were answered. Not only was it a cohesive production successfully providing a modern adaptation to a classic Broadway staple, it also provided us with images of melanin that the media has been lacking. The production brought in 11.5 million viewers..on a weeknight…the same night as an NFL game. That in itself is quite impressive.
So let’s go into it.
First things first, this was a re-imagining of the STAGE PLAY not the movie. I know many people were comparing this to the 1978 film adaption staring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor and Lena Horne. While some may consider that film a cult-classic in African-American cinema, it was the 1975 Broadway play that truly gave this story life. The Broadway show ran for 4 years and won 7 Tony Awards. The movie itself did alright, gaining 4 Academy Awards nominations itself.
The original Broadway adaptation was written to reflect the African American experience and this re-imagining followed suit. Not only was the set colorfully articulate, but the costumes included African-inspired print and the dancers had natural hair styles. Even the main characters outfits reflect the current generation i.e. Tin Man’s fitted and the Lion’s locs (Rasta much?).
Speaking of the dancers let’s talk about the amazing Cirque Du Soleil and choreographer Fatima Robinson. I’m sure we’ve all heard of Cirque Du Soleil (who were co-producers) and if you’ve seen an Aaliyah video or any recent Pharrell Williams video or performance than you are familiar with the legendary Fatima Robinson. Their union of hip-hop, classical and acrobatic danced worked perfectly on stage. I’m sure we all caught Scarecrow and Dorothy whipping their Nae Nae, Tin Man hittin’ that dab and Mary doing the Mary 2-step. And then there was the vogueing in Emerald City. We also saw the acrobatics of the Cirque Du Soleil throughout the production. This Cirque Du Fatima creation not only helped give the characters a modern touch, but also gave it that classical feel unique to Broadway. Many of the dance numbers reminded me of Katherine Dunham’s contribution to Stormy Weather, especially the during the storm scene and during Don’t Bring Me No Bad News.
The script was also updated to reflect today’s vernacular. We heard the Tin Man talk about “mollywhopping” folks, Evillene asking Dorothy when she’s going to “give up those kicks”, The Wiz not going for “no half steppin'” and one of the munchkins telling Addapearle to “lean in the clutch”. Adapting the script to reflect current slang is important in ensuring that the generation watching the show, young and younger, will be able to identify.
Casting in a play/movie/show can make or break a project, and acting on stage is not the same as acting on film. There is no post production. What you see is what you get. That speaks to the amazing talent that we saw last night. David, Uzo, Stephanie and Latifah are no strangers to the stage, and the rest of the cast fell in line with bringing life to the stage that permeated through the screen. All of the performances were superb and you can tell that careful thought was used during casting of all roles. The roll which stood out to me was Mary J. Blige as Evillene. Now, I’m not saying she was the best performance of the night, but I will say that she exceeded my expectations. I’ve seen Mary in a few other projects before and she was…eh…but in this? I was impressed. Mary said in an interview that she felt right at home with this character because this is how she gets when people don’t give her what she needs, and it showed. Not only did she convey the classic viciousness of Evillene, but she gave Don’t Bring Me No Bad News that stank that only Mary can give it.
I was also impressed with Shanice Williams and Elijah Kelley. Shanice had big shoes to fill as the original Dorothy in the play was played by none other than Auntie Em herself, Stephanie Mills. Stephanie’s iconic performance of “Home” is a staple in R&B history and I’m willing to bet that there are some people who’ve heard that song and don’t realize it comes from the play. Shanice did a great job of taking Home, making it her own, and making it unique to her interpretation of Dorothy. Elijah Kelley also had big shoes to fill as the last person to portray scarecrow was the late great Michael Jackson. Elijah himself is no stranger to the world of musicals as he portrayed Seaweed in the 2007 film adaptation of Hairspray. While taking on such on iconic role could be daunting, however Elijah successfully gave scarecrow soulful relaunch, crafty dance moves and all (kudos Fatima!)
Most interesting was Queen Latifah’s rolse as The Wiz. When she was The Wiz, she was perceived to be a man. It wasn’t until after it was revealed that the whole image of The Wiz was a scam that we found out that he was actually a she, which Lion made note of and Dorothy corrected him with the utmost confidence “ain’t nothing wrong with being a woman!” That declaration in itself serves as a form of remembrance of self confidence and is a direct response to The Wiz having to portray herself as a man in order to be seen as powerful. It speaks to the perceived association of power and leadership being automatically assumed to be male.
The original music and lyrics were written and composed by Charlie Smalls with contributions by Luther Vandross in 1975 and the movie saw an update, being produced from legendary producer Quincy Jones and the help of Ashford and Simpson. Arguably, the music to The Wiz is just as if not more storied than the film itself, as the movie included tracks not found in the original stage play. The Wiz LIVE’s score was based on Quincy Jones 1978 soundtrack but you could clearly hear where the music had been updated to fit the times. At once point you could hear the “trap music” infused into the score. There were also scenes where drums echoing those of our ancestors where presented, i.e. the scene with the Poppies.
Probably one of the best parts of this production was the image. There were so many diverse images of black people in the production, but the one that stood out to me was Uzo Aduba as Glinda the Good With. In all the adaptations of The Wiz as well as The Wizard of Oz, Glinda The Good Witch is the most beautiful of them all. I remember watching The Wiz and being spellbound by the magnificence of Lena Horne. Now a whole new generation can experience that themselves with Uzo. Dorothy exclaiming “She’s so pretty” further drives how the much need affrimation of the beauty of melanin. Not only is Uzo rich with melanin, but she wore her hair in a natural hair style as opposed to the gold curly wig she had on in the promotional material. She looked like she could be someone’s mother, aunt, neighbor, etc, and she was FLAWLESS. In the age of “Reality” TV reducing black women to nothing more that loud, emotional creatures who fight at the drop of a dime, this image of Uzo as Glinda was monumental as it shows a beautiful black QUEEN reminding little black girls everywhere to believe in themselves.
To wrap this up (because I could go on forever and I left out so much stuff), this was an amazing production. I wouldn’t be surprised if this finds its way back to Broadway with this same cast. Kudos to all those who had a hand in making this a reality. You have truly contributed to Black Excellence. I look forward to NBC running it again.