The show itself started with the 3 wise men/Dorothy’s Oz friends/Dorothy’s farmhands in their regular lives before they become the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man. Not ‘before they are dreamt of as those 3’ but before they become them, because one of my biggest problems with “The Wizard of Oz” is that we’re supposed to believe everything was a dream, which is bullshit. BULL. SHIT. I was very happy to see one of my favorite performers, Elijah Kelley, here as the Scarecrow, because even though we’ve only ever seen him in the newest “Hairspray” movie, that’s enough because a) that movie is perfect (if I were on an iPhone I’d use that red 100 emoji) and b) the year it came out the whole cast premiered songs from it live at ShoWest and I was fangirling at the front of the stage because I was the only non-old-white-old-man in the room so it was like ALL FOR ME and I was like ‘Angelica, ELIJAH!’ that whole time.
Dorothy, played by total newcomer Shanice Williams, begins by being such a teenager all huffy about how this farm isn’t her home and she wants to go home and are you too good for your home, but then Auntie Em, played by Stephanie Mills – as in, Stephanie Mills the original Dorothy in the original “The Wiz” Broadway production! – sings the first song about how like, your parents died in that accident and I hope soon you are back to your normal self because I don’t know how to make you feel better about being an orphan, no one does because that’s f-ing terrible. Starting a show with a ballad instead of a rousing company-wide upbeat number is my Theatre No-no #1, well aside from Not Sucking, because such songs immediately bring energy levels down – so when you are just starting, you’re at level 0 energy, and then it brings you into negatives, and most of America doesn’t get how negatives even work because public education is in shambles, so it’s just not the best way to begin. However, Mills is pretty great considering it’s a super-cold open and she’s a ledge. But then things get going with the COOLEST FREAKING TORNADO I’ve ever seen. Damn! I think my only point of reference might be ‘Twister’, and the news, but this used some wonderful special effects both in the form of projections and, much cooler, in the form of lots of chorus boys spinning around all crazy like. I very much enjoyed this tornado and hope I am never in a real one.
The camera starts to go fuzzayyyy and then it focuses on Dorothy, her broke ass house, and shiny towers of Oz!! Wheee! Munchkins come out and they are wearing adorable costumes and are NOT midgets being exploited! Huzzah! They’re acting all serious and adorable and mad about how the house killed someone wearing silver heels hella difficult to walk in (maybe that’s what killed her), but then they’re like NO WE’RE SO HAPPY YOU KILLED A STRANGER LET’S HAVE A PARTY INSTEAD OF EXPLAINING IT ADEQUATELY TO YOU SO YOU AREN’T SCARRED FOR LIFE! and then freaking Amber Riley, wasted for years on “Glee” until we almost forgot what a talent she really is, comes out and shouts “Hey girl, I’m Glinda, oh wait just kidding, I’m ‘Addaperle, the feel-good girl’; there’s another good witch in this version named Glinda, she’s really cool too.” I CAN’T WAIT!
We hear some dumb lines in this updated book by Harvey Fierstein, whom I absolutely adoooore, but he wasn’t the right choice for this show. I mean. Old Jewish white boy, traditionally black and urban hip hop musical....There’s a bleh line about having sushi for lunch and something else I immediately put out of mind, and then Amber lets loose on “He’s the Wiz” and it’s pretty amazing, stupid Ryan Murphy kept her on lockdown for so many years. She does a sort of “And I Am Telling You” ending to a whatever song, with Shanice getting her first sung lines, well a few ‘ahh’s. Sounded great! Why has Dorothy still not had a song??!!
Yay here she goes! For Shanice’s first song, “Soon as I Get Home”, she needed a minute or two to shake out the nerves, but she proved how impressive she is. Great job! It’s still a super R&B slow-jam song though. And yes, this show is famously R&B, but so far it’s all the same kind of sound. We need something more energetic to cut all these power ballads!
We cut to that unfairly incredible commercial with Taraji, Kerry, and Mary J., and I’m like, damn, why am I not cooking and dancing with those ladies rn? What do I have to do to be in that commercial with them but in real life?
We come back to the show and see, on the scarecrow’s pole, that weird and scary guy Cillian Murphy played in “Batman Begins” with that burlap sack mask. Or it’s Elijah Kelley wearing that same weird and scary mask, covering up his pretty little face. He’s surrounded by really scary mean crow-men, who he says have been filling his head with all manner of nonsense. I think the crows represent the republican presidential candidates and OMG, I’m right, they just began the ‘Crow Commandments’, really called “You Can’t Win”, but I like my title better. It’s such a fun, upbeat (yay finally!) song considering how dire the message is – you can’t win, you can’t get out of the game, you are screwed forever, just give up. It must be hard to sing in your best voice when there is a pole stuck up your butt and you’re just hanging there with no breath support, but he does a decent job. I know there’s better from him to come though. His spoken lines are hilarious with his fast timing: “Do you know what?” “I know nothing!”
HERE WE GO! Next comes the most famous song of the whole ‘70s, “Ease on Down the Road”. I dare you, no, I double dog triple cat dare you, not to sing along whenever you hear this song. This is one powerful instant mood lifter, oh man. The pace seems to be picking up, along with the energy, and we quickly meet the Tin-Man, played by Ne-Yo, yes, that Ne-Yo. He sounds incredible, singing his big song “Pour Some Sugar On Me”, oh I’m sorry, that’s “Slide Some Oil To Me”. Same same. It has a super chill not-at-all-awkward chorus that goes “so slide some oil to me, girl, and we can lubricate my miiiind”. Totally normal. Anyway, Ne-Yo is some great casting. I really like this version of the Tin Man compared to the Wizard of Oz. It’s much closer to his backstory in “Wicked”, having the bad witch turn him into a Tin Man and leaving him heartless, saying if she couldn’t have his heart, no one could. And also, Ne-Yo is legit fabulous in this role.
We get a quick “Ease on Down” reprise before Mr. David Alan Grier pops out roaring as the Cowardly Lion, looking to sell some happy dust to Audra McDonald if only Dr. Jesus will help him out while singing “I’m a Mean Ole Lion”. He’s pretty great, complaining about failed therapy and what not. I love it. And he looks wonderful. It’s hard to get a lion costume down, but the costumes for this show are so far wonderful. Except Dorothy’s. And now another “Ease on Down” reprise!
Then ‘The Wiz’ gets hella dark and kind of close to a line that shouldn’t be crossed – the wicked witch’s monkeys, or other evil spirits, or some terrible dark force, conjure up the image of Dorothy’s deceased mother, to have her/it lure Dorothy into almost giving up the silver slippers, because how can this young kid realize that it’s not the mother she wishes more than anything to see again and that it’s just the most evil thing possible? Damn. Luckily the Tin Man stops her from giving the slipper and then they fight some red-eyed cyclops flying monkeys who can dance and fall so gracefully. Then Dorothy sings a song to the Lion just like Em sang to her at the beginning. “Be A Lion” sounds like a really difficult song to sing, and it doesn’t really have a worthwhile pay off until DAG joins in at the end.
AND THEN COME THE POPPIES! It’s like remembrance day in England all over again! The poppy set was super beautiful; I love how they produced this scene. Another red 100 emoji for you guys. I started to get super nervous about the Lion being all pervy to the flowers but then he showed he was impervious (WORDPLAY) to the poppies and tied them up.
And then all of a sudden they were in the Emerald City! Common as the Bouncer to Emerald City, which is apparently just a cool night club, was kind of painful, and I love Common. Like more than Serena did. Luckily, Dot mentioned how she killed one of the wicked witches and has her slippers, so Common lets them into the Capital for a dance party before the reaping, so it seems. After they do some weird new version of the robot, we meet the Wiz! It’s Latifah! She sings a song that is way too low for her. Why wouldn’t they have changed the key? In every big production, a man played the Wiz, but it actually sounds like they didn’t transpose the song for Latifs. Why on earth would that be the case? SO FING DUMB.
Harvey gives Ne-Yo some amazing lines in this interaction with the Wiz: “Whatchu looking for, a can opener?” Ne-Yo: “Ohh you clever! You scary as hell, but you clever!” I love it! It’s followed by a really lame Spice Girls reference. Oh Harvey.
But then Ne-Yo sings “What Would I Do if I Could Feel” and saves the moment by bringing the house down. How amazing would he be as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton”??? Make it so! In the London production! It could happen.
Latifah made some more awkward acting things, Dorothy said a forced line about her squad (#ohharvey), and then the star foursome of Dorothy and her three wise men sang a showstopping rendition of “We Got It’, which with just a little more choreography on their part would be ready for the Broadway revival. Speaking of, I really hope these four are in it.
The high energy and production value continued as we finally meet Evillene, the Wicked Witch we knew as green but is now freaking R&B royalty, dressed from the closet of Regina on Once Upon A Time, with those huge skirts over interesting pants. Did people in the fairy tale times really wear such things? If you are going to wear a skirt, it’s so you don’t have to wear pants, right? So why if you are going to wear a cool skirt would you ALSO wear pants? What’s the damn point? It’s like if you get up early for school but then find out it’s a snow day and you DON’T go back to sleep! What’s wrong with you! We don’t get snow in London.
Mary J. Blige’s Evillene is amazing, oh my goodness. Can she do anything wrong? She gets one bum line accusing her funnyman henchman of being ‘an Eddie Murphy or something’? because he’s funny? #ohharvey. But then she gets some great lines proving that Dorothy kind of sucks, in the “Wicked” perspective at least. Like, she stole Evillene’s sister’s shoes…after she KILLED her. Wicked witch allowed to be mad about that, and those facts do make Dorothy seem like the wicked one. But apparently Evillene’s talk about throwing shade made Dorothy upset that she missed the latest podcast while in Oz so she picked up her mopping bucket and threw the dirty water on the witch to melt her, because water can kill. (We learned that in fifth grade. It was a riddle my teacher gave us: What is necessary for life but can also kill you. Fifth grade. Riddle. In school. Not weird.) So Dorothy laments ‘Oh no, I did it again”, which is weird because that’s WHY she went to Evillene’s lair in the first place, under the Wiz’s orders, to kill Evillene. Did she forget her mission? Never forget the mission Dot! An even stranger reaction is that Evillene’s indentured servants slowly start stripping as soon as they realize their master is gone. Like, no verbal reaction, just slow stripping. We see that underneath their super-cool goth-punk dark pink and black robes are yellow booty shorts, happier clothes that they weren’t allowed to wear, and only when they are free of the dark clothes can their moods match the joy of the yellow clothes. Or something. “Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day” is joyous and fun, and the foursome sound wonderful, like they know they made it through the brunt of the show and can relax. Ensemble members get a few solo sung lines, which is nice. Hi Capathia!
Big running question: Why do they have Dorothy in a too short miniskirt this whole time? She’s like 13 in the show, right? Every number that requires her to dance shows her underwear, which is weird for a 13 year old.
Another awkward as ass Common scene! And then another awkward Latifah scene when they pull back the curtain and find that she’s a fraud and a WOMAN! I didn’t think that was a secret? They did call her ‘sir’ a lot when they first met her but I didn’t think anything of it. But there are some dumb lines when Ne-Yo’s like “oh she’s a woman!” and Dorothy’s like “and WHAT’S wrong with that? nothing. You have no manners” which is just like unnecessary here. Also it reminds me of what Sarah Silverman said about little girls: don’t tell little girls they can be whatever they want because that is what puts the idea in their head that someone says they can’t.
Anyway, they convince the Wiz to go back home to Omaha, which didn’t take a lot of effort considering they were like, ‘you can eat at Modern Love’, so she’s like yeah aight let’s bounce. Queenie lets down her hair and looks f-ing amazing in her final number “Y’all Got It”, and she also sounds a lot better. She gets in the hot air balloon and calls for Dorothy to join her, and in the original Wizard of Oz, Dot is too busy hugging her friends and tripping on her own feet and stuff and misses the flight in an oh shoot oh no manner. I love that here, Dorothy decides that going to Omaha is not right for her. Granted, she could have GONE to Omaha with the Wiz and then caught the freaking bus back to Auntie Em…because Omaha is closer to Kansas than a freaking OTHER REALM is, but she is only 13 and so her brain is only halfway developed. Her heart was in the right place, I guess. Kids are dumb.
But luckily Glinda arrives! We haven’t met Glinda yet and it’s almost over. Luckily Uzo Aduba is worth waiting for, because her Glinda has a touch of Crazy Eyes in her and it’s a great combination. Her song “Believe In Yourself” has some strong moments, a few rough patches, but overall I enjoyed it. Mostly because I was watching Crazy Eyes all dressed up and I never got to see her in “Godspell”. Uzoooo!
Finally/finale, we realize that Shanice Williams was saving everything she had for her big number, which so unfairly (to the star) is the finale of “The Wiz”. Aside from “Ease on Down the Road”, “Home” is the most recognizable song from the show, if not more so, considering Stephanie Mills released it as a single and Diana Ross sang it on the movie soundtrack. It’s kind of a big deal. I can’t express how proud I am of this little stranger Shanice for how perfectly she performed her big song. I mean. Watching this show back, she must be completely and totally thrilled with how faultless it was. I hope she’s as proud as everyone in the world is of her. My favorite thing, besides watching a newcomer shining in her big moment, was how everyone in the Broadway community erupted on Twitter proclaiming that the country just witnessed a star being born. I love the camaraderie! Everyone seemed so proud of her! I love it!
Overall, this was such a strong show and definitely the best of the televised live shows thus far. I am going to make an advance bet that it’s also better than Fox’s upcoming “Grease!” live because “Grease” sucks and they should have chosen “Grease 2: Back in the Habit” to do instead. For “The Wiz”, NBC and Neil Meron & Craig Zadan seemed to hear all the criticism of the previous two shows – iron out that camerawork in tech more, and hire actors who can actually do the job, not just Be Famous – and actually worked on fixing those issues. The cast here was hella famous, but they were actually incredible, obviously, because instead of like “oh let’s get Christopher Walken to do impressions of a stick being tossed by a light wind”, they got people famous for being great singers. That is smart. They also went for strong famous actors who have already been tested in musical theatre – Uzo Aduba was on Broadway before “OITNB” came out; David Alan Grier got a Tony nom early in his career, and he was in “Dreamgirls” on Broadway, and he was in freaking “Porgy & Bess” with Audra McDonald, FFS; Stephanie Mills, &c. I hope a lot of this cast continues with the upcoming Broadway production, especially Shanice (she deserves it), Elijah Kelley (he needs to break into Broadway and stay there), and DAG. And Mary J. Blige and Ne-Yo, though they’d probably never do it. And Stephanie Mills, because that would be almost as cool as when Kelli O’Hara someday plays Margaret in “The Light in the Piazza”. Suffice it to say, I am really excited to see who I’m going to see in the stage production. Almost as excited as I am to watch this again right now.