Toto, we’re not in predictable theater land anymore.
The new production of The Wiz, presented as a joint collaboration by the Dallas Theater Center and Dallas Black Dance Theatre, has done something magical. It’s taken a dated, often lambasted piece of material and refashioned it into an exciting and surprising theatrical experience.
In a wise move, director Kevin Moriarty has kept all of the garish 1970s fabulousness of the original intact while simultaneously transporting The Wiz to a fresh, contemporary land. Beginning on a humble farmstead in rural Kansas, young Dorothy (Trisha Jeffrey) is swept up in a tornado and plopped down in Oz. At the advice of Addaperle (Liz Mikel), the Good Witch of the North, Dorothy decides to seek out the man who can supposedly send her home: The Wiz (Hassan El-Amin). Along the way she joins up with a Scarecrow (James T. Lane), a Tin Man (Sydney James Harcourt), and a Lion (David Ryan Smith). The story of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is familiar, but William F. Brown’s attitude-laden dialogue and Charlie Smalls’ groovy songs give it a twist.
The first exciting hint of this production’s daring comes in the form of the tornado: seven lithe dancers costumed in swathes of ominous black fabric athletically twirl and leap around the stage, carrying a whimpering Dorothy along with them. Those seated in the first few rows can actually feel the gusts of wind that the dancers generate, helping to simulate a storm. Throughout the show, the DBDT dancers embody not only the tornado, but also the chattering munchkins, booty-shaking crows, winged monkeys, sleep-inducing poppies, and even the famous Yellow Brick Road. Christopher Lance Huggins’ choreography is inventive, and the extra expressiveness the dancers lend to their roles is exquisite.
The second surprise comes when the audience itself begins to move.
You may have heard whispers about the “pods:” twelve separate, moveable sections of audience seating that are swung around the stage by stagehands (who are deservedly recognized in the curtain call). If you’re seated in one of these pods, you’ll receive instructions that sound more suited to a rollercoaster than a theater seat: “Keep your hands and feet in the pod at all times, hold onto all personal items throughout the show,” etc.
The pods are no mere gimmick; they are the creative crux of the production. Not only does this restructuring of the audience offer alternative vantage points for the pod-goers, it opens up the visual opportunities for those seated in traditional seats. As the pods constantly rearrange to become part of Jo Winiarski’s fluid set, the actors likewise don’t confine themselves to any one spot. Pod or not, it’s possible you might find a scarecrow in your lap.
The cast, outfitted in Wade Laboissonniere’s delightfully spot-on costumes, are more than up for the show’s unconventional challenges. Trisha Jeffrey projects a child-like innocence bolstered by adult bravery, and her voice is liquid gold. Lane’s loose-limbed Scarecrow and Smith’s Lion alternately project sass and vulnerability, while Harcourt brings a sexual swagger to his Tin Man that never veers into sleaze. Local favorite Mikel, returning home from the off-Broadway hit Lysistrata Jones (which originated as Give It Up! at the DTC), hams it up as both Addaperle and her wicked sister to the west, Evillene. The performers are backed by a small band and quartet of vocalists tucked into stage left.
The show’s trim 90-minute run time is perfectly suited to the whirlwind experience. But perhaps the most encouraging realization comes when some of the more tender songs are being performed—“What Would I Do If I Could Feel” by the Tin Man, for example. At that point, nothing is moving, nobody is dancing, and yet the spell is just as powerful. That is real magic.
All photos by David Leggett