“The Wiz” makes a wonderful splash at the Ahmanson. There’s more to this black musical update of the “The Wizard of Oz” than meets the eye, but what does meet the eye is so dazzling that you have to start with that.
Designers Geoffrey Holder (who also directed it) and Tom H. John boldly give us Oz not as W.W. Denslow saw it in 1903 or as MGM saw it in 1939 but as they see it today-freaky, spacey, what Las Vegas would be if it would only let go. The Wiz’s emerald palace looks like the showroom at the Oz Hilton, where they bring all the drinks at once and charge $25 just to get in. (Appropriately, the Wiz, Andre DeSheilds, looks like the headliner.) The cave where Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, does her thing is the last word in mojo parlors, featuring a buzzard you could fly to Paris. (Evillene, Ella Mitchell, looks like her feet hurt.) Sometimes you can’t tell Holder’s costumes from John’s set. The yellow Brick Road is four dudes in orange Afros and gold cricket-coats with bricks painted on.
The cyclone is a dancer in yards and yards of black cloth followed by a chorus of dervishes with inside-out umbrellas.
The colors are so bold that they’re almost hostile. Bright bright greens, sexy pinks, mean purples (for Evillene’s place), icebox whites-one might wonder whether Tharon Musser’s lighting is needed at all. “The Wiz” gives the eye more to blink at than any musical since “Jesus Christ Superstar” (its designer, Robin Wagner, is an influence) and would be worth seeing for this alone. Flash at this intensity has a kind of magnificence to it. Here’s a show that shows you something.
It’s also a charming and absolutely valid approach to “The Wizard of Oz.” Child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim recommends in a new book that parents tell their children the old stories in terms they can understand but without softening the harshness that’s often a part of these stories-kids need witches. “The Wiz” might be a black parent’s.