The Wiz -- Theater Review

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When it premiered on Broadway in 1975, "The Wiz" proved itself to be an entertainingly new take on "The Wizard of Oz" story, infused with an irreverence and black sensibility. Nearly 35 years later, its freshness has been decidedly dimmed, and the new revival being presented by Encores! Summer Stars doesn't do it any favors.

Although the revival has terrific showpieces, it doesn't seem strong enough to merit a Broadway transfer, especially because "Wicked" seems to have cornered the market on "Oz" updatings.

The original production was marked by director-choreographer Geoffrey Holder's wonderful theatrical flair as well as a first-rate ensemble. This version, directed by Thomas Kail and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler (who collaborated on "In the Heights"), comes dangerously close to summer stock.

Pop star Ashanti plays Dorothy, and though the young singer handles her vocal chores ably enough, she never manages to make us care about her character. (The fact that Dorothy is almost a secondary role in this version of the tale doesn't help.)

Joshua Henry, James Monroe Iglehart and Christian Dante White all have their respective moments as the Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow, and Orlando Jones is a decent enough Wizard. But the real standouts are LaChanze's Glinda, who provides the evening with its showstopping moment with the soaring ballad "Believe in Yourself," and Tichina Arnold, channeling Tina Turner with her fierce take on Evillene, the Wicked Witch.

Neither William F. Brown's sketchy book nor Charlie Smalls' score has aged particularly well, though there are some decent numbers, the most familiar of which, of course, is the oft-reprised "Ease on Down the Road."

The obviously low budget has resulted in a bland, abstract set design and hit-or-miss costumes. Although there are undeniably clever touches -- like the Munchkins being full-heighted performers rolling around on wheeled chairs -- devices like representing the Yellow Brick Road with yellow light bulbs don't exactly evoke wonder.

Kail's staging is decidedly underwhelming, and Blankenbuehler's eclectic and seemingly nonstop choreography -- incorporating influences ranging from hip-hop to Alvin Ailey -- never feels organic.

Although not a debacle on the order of Sidney Lumet's misbegotten film adaptation, this "Wiz" doesn't exactly make you want to click your heels.

Venue: New York City Center (Through July 5)
Presented by: New York City Center Encores! Summer Stars
Cast: Ashanti, Orlando Jones, LaChanze, Joshua Henry, James Monroe Iglehart, Christian Dante White, Tichina Arnold, Dawnn Lewis
Book: William F. Brown
Music-lyrics: Charlie Smalls
Director: Thomas Kail
Choreographer: Andy Blankenbuehler
Music director: Alex Lacamoire
Scenic designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Ken Billington
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
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