You could feel the circus-like atmosphere and the excitement of the crowd in the National Theatre lobby before the opening curtain of The Wiz. The touring production more than delivered, and it showed the audience a “brand new day.” Schele Williams directed standout performances of the Tony Award–winning musical with its mix of rock, ’70s funk, gospel, soul, and a dash of hip-hop. The Wiz is what a musical is supposed to be.
In its first pre-Broadway tour in 40 years, this version of The Wiz features a book by William F. Brown and a Tony Award–winning score by Charlie Smalls with additional material by Amber Ruffin. It also treats the audience to projection design by Daniel Brodie, choreography by JaQuel Knight (Beyoncé’s music video “Single Ladies”), and Joseph Joubert’s outstanding music supervision and orchestration. Joubert, along with Music Director and Conductor Paul Byssainthe Jr., flawlessly led his orchestra through such hits as “Soon As I Get Home,” “Ease On Down the Road,” “Believe in Yourself,” and “Everybody Rejoice (Can You See a Brand New Day).”
The Wiz was adapted from the book The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, published in 1900 as a political allegory of turn-of-the-century America. It tells the story of a young woman named Dorothy who gets whisked away by a tornado to a magical and mysterious land called Oz. On her quest to get home, she meets a brainless scarecrow (who represented farmers), a heartless and rusty tin man (who represented unemployed factory workers), a cowardly lion (who represented populist Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan), witches (who represented bankers), and the titular Wizard (who represented President William McKinley). This adaptation of The Wiz is a 21st-century takeoff of the 1978 film version that starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson and is a distant cry from the classic 1939 film version. This Wiz has hip-hop flavor sprinkled on it by Ruffin.
Brodie’s projections created everything from a black-and-white Kansas landscape to dangerous forests, a foreboding witch’s lair, and the resplendent, ultra-modern Emerald City (complete with commuter trains). The projections had a 3D effect, with clouds disappearing behind buildings and streets looking like they went on indefinitely.
All of this fit in seamlessly with Hannah Beachler’s scenic design — the set pieces and scenery wagons (one of the most impressive of which was the Wiz’s throne) matched the projections in color and shape. It was a feast for the eyes. The colors were vibrant. I was a kid again.
The character of Dorothy must be the pillar of the show. Nichelle Lewis was phenomenal in the role. In her Broadway debut, she brought emotion and fervor to “Soon As I Get Home,” “Wonder, Wonder Why,” and “Home.” Her character set forth a major question raised by the story: “What if there is scary stuff out there I don’t know about?” Lewis was simply unforgettable.
Melody A. Betts pulled double duty as Dorothy’s Aunt Em and the terrible witch Evillene. Betts had a touching scene with Lewis in the opening scene as Aunt Em but turned up the fire as the bombastic Evillene in other scenes. Betts, who has toured in The Sound of Music, shared her beautiful voice in numbers such as Aunt Em’s “The Feeling We Once Had” and Evillene’s “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.”
Avery Wilson’s Scarecrow “that doesn’t scare anyone” hoofed and sang well in “You Can’t Win.” Wilson got laughs when he played Scarecrow with a queer flavor in one of his scenes with Lewis and again in another scene. His rendition of the upbeat and iconic “Ease On Down the Road” with Lewis was a highlight of the first act.
It was a delight to see Phillip Johnson Richardson play the Tinman. He brought pathos to his story of how he was left stranded and rusty by Evillene. He showed impressive rug-cutting in “Slide Some Oil to Me.”
Adding to a show full of great performances, Kyle Ramar Freeman’s Lion was spectacular. His arc went from mean to scaredy cat. His “Mean Ole Lion” not only showcased his pipes but told Lion’s story. I also liked Freeman, a Broadway veteran, in “Be a Lion.”
Award-winning singer Deborah Cox owned her scenes as Glinda the good witch. Cox was inspiring and angelic-voiced in “Believe in Yourself.” She even did a little jazz scatting in “He’s the Wiz.” It’s notable that jazz veteran and screen legend Lena Horne played Glinda in the film version.
“Meet the Wizard” saw the titular Wiz, played with panache by Dora Award Winner Alan Mingo Jr, burst into some hip-hop moves. He also played the shifty-eyed con man angle as he sang “Y’all Got It.” Knight’s choreography was on display here.
The ensemble and swing members played townspeople, Ozians, poppy flowers, a tornado, and more. Dance Captain Amber Jackson, along with Knight’s choreography, helped turn the music numbers into well-danced ones. The ensemble included Maya Bowles, Shayla Alayre Caldwell, Jay Copeland, Allyson Kaye Daniel, Judith Franklin, Collin Heyward, Olivia “Melio J.” Jackson, Christina Jones, Polanco Jones Jr., Kolby Kindle, Mariah Lyttle, Kareem Marsh, Anthony Murphy, Cristina Raé, Avilon Trust Tate, Keenan D. Washington, and Jackson. Michael Samarie George, Matthew Sims Jr., and Timothy Wilson served as swings.
Sharen Davis’ costume design included Lion’s regal attire, the Wiz’s green suit and top hat, and Dorothy’s silver slippers. I also loved the crow outfits she put on ensemble members. Charles G. Lapointe’s hair and wig work was most evident with Evillene’s hairdo. Jon Weston’s sound design included Lion’s roar and various other effects.
Director Schele Williams (who will co-direct The Notebook next year and is working on a revival of Disney’s Aida) has crafted an unforgettable show in which you’ll be a kid again. It’s well over two hours of Black Excellence. Bring your spouse, bring your kids, bring a friend — “Ease On Down the Road” to see The Wiz.
Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours with a 15-minute intermission.
The Wiz plays through October 29, 2023, at the National Theatre at 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC. Tickets (starting at $59) are available online or by calling the box office at (202) 628-6161, Monday through Friday 12 pm to 6 pm.
ASL interpretation and audio description available during the 2:00 p.m. performance on Saturday, October 28. Learn more here.
Cast and creative credits for the pre-Broadway national tour of The Wiz can be found here.
COVID Safety: Masks are strongly recommended but not required for all ticket holders. For full COVID protocol, go here.
Book by William F. Brown
Music and Lyrics by Charlie Smalls
Additional Material for this Production by Amber Ruffin
Dorothy: Nichelle Lewis
The Wiz: Alan Mingo Jr.
Glinda: Deborah Cox
Aunt Em/Evillene: Melody A. Betts
Lion: Kyle Ramar Freeman
Tinman: Philip Johnson Richardson
Scarecrow: Avery Wilson
Ensemble: Maya Bowles, Shayla Alayre Caldwell, Jay Copeland, Allyson Kaye Daniel, Judith Franklin, Collin Heyward, Olivia “Melio J.” Jackson, Christina Jones, Polanco Jones Jr., Kolby Kindle, Mariah Lyttle, Kareem Marsh, Anthony Murphy, Cristina Raé, Avilon Trust Tate, Keenan D. Washington, and Amber Jackson.
Swing: Michael Samarie George, Matthew Sims Jr., and Timothy Wilson
ARTISTIC AND CREATIVE TEAM
Director: Schele Williams
Music Supervision: Joseph Joubert
Music Director/Conductor: Paul Byssainthe Jr.
Music Coordinator: Michael Aarons
Projection Design: Daniel Brodie
Choreography: JaQuel Knight
Dance Captain: Amber Jackson
Scenic Design: Hannah Beachler
Costume Design: Sharen Davis
Hair and Wig Design: Charles G. Lapointe
Sound Design: Jon Weston
Lighting Design: Ryan J. O’Gara
Production Properties Supervisor: Kathy Fabian
See the lineup of future Broadway at the National shows here.