“The Wiz” – ASU Gammage

Theater Review – January 3, 2024

“THE WIZ” CAN’T BE HEARD HERE BUT ITS FRESH LOOK SHOULD WORK ON BROADWAY

“The Wiz”
Broadway Across America – Arizona, ASU Gammage
Tempe, AZ

By Chris Curcio
Theater Critic

“The Wiz” is back in town in a heavily contemporized version of the 1975 Tony Award-winning musical.  The show has always taken a different look at the 1903 L. Frank Baum tale immortalized in the 1939 Judy Garland film with an upbeat score and all Black cast.

The local engagement is part of a year-long road tour with the final stop beginning March 29 on Broadway.  The superb touring cast will bring the show to New York City.  It’s a Broadway worthy ensemble starring Nichelle Lewis as a fine Dorothy who wants to go back home to Kansas but is enchanted by meeting the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tinman plus her magical journey with her compatriots to the land of Oz.  While in Oz, she eliminates Evillene and immortalizes Glinda as she heads home.

The production needs some fine tuning before it can enchant Broadway but there are many fine things as it will compete with the long-running “Wicked,” which explores a similar plot.  Schele Williams’ zippy direction keeps things breezing along but Jaquel Knight’s busy and mundane choreography needs some sparks of originality. The show’s small artificial proscenium will work in Broadway’s Marquis Theatre but in the cavernous ASU Gammage, the tiny opening blocks some of the stage magic as Dorothy’s bleak home transitions to a multi-colorful Oz extravaganza with sparkling projections.  Elaborately colorful costumes add to the visual fantasies. Joseph Joubert’s new orchestrations make many familiar tunes almost unrecognizable but does give them a welcome updated sound.

Most distressing is ASU Gammage’s miserable acoustics which allow almost no lyrics even in the songs to be understood.  If audiences don’t bring a good knowledge of the story, it is too easy to get lost in the simple storyline.  Cast accents further exacerbate the sound problem. The sound issue must be solved or Broadway audiences will not accept the revival.

The remarkable cast starting with Lewis’ wonderfully sincere Dorothy to Melody A. Betts homey Aunt Em and her vile Evillene dazzle.  Deborah Cox brings sensibility to Oz as Glinda and Alan Mingo, Jr. is a hyped The Wiz.  Kyle Ramar Freeman is appropriately cowardly as The Lion, Avery Wilson is afraid of his own shadow as the Scarecrow, and Phillip Johnson Richardson is a creaky but ultimately oily Tinman.  A sizeable chorus play an assortment of vibrant roles and the booming orchestra pounds out the swinging score winningly.

The reincarnated “The Wiz” is a boundlessly energetic Broadway caliber show but if you could only hear the show at ASU Gammage, it would be even more vibrant. “The Wiz” continues through Sunday, January 7.  To order tickets, call the ASU Gammage box office at 480-965-3434 or order tickets online at www.asugammage.com.

Grade: A-