THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s Oz-some. [Sorry. Had to.]
Twitter turned out on Thursday (Dec. 3) night ready and eager for a favorite new annual tradition: Eviscerating an NBC live musical for cheap sets, incoherent direction, unimaginative choreography and bland stars getting upstaged by Broadway veterans in all-too-tiny cameos.
It took less than five minutes for NBC’s The Wiz Live! to crush dreams of an evening spent in glorious communal mockery, as Dorothy (revelatory newcomer Shanice Williams) was whisked away from her disappointing prairie life (and non-disappointing Aunt Em, played by Original Dorothy, Stephanie Mills) in a nightmarish maelstrom of digital twister effects augmented by horned whirling dervish dancers. It was a moment that was scary, artistic and theatrical, a moment that announced, “Forget Kansas … You aren’t in the Alps or Neverland anymore.”.
Unable to do worse than nitpick the sort of minor technical struggles that are nearly inevitable in a live, one-night-only full-scale musical with a cast of hundreds, this was the first time it was possible to just sit back and purely enjoy a new generation NBC musical and hope the first lesson producers learn for next year’s show is to bring back director Kenny Leon and especially choreographer Fatima Robinson, who did such a fine job you can bet they’re both already imagining how they could do it better.
The most important elements in the success of The Wiz Live! come from Leon and Robinson and their accumulation of a rather remarkable assortment of talent to populate the stages at Grumman Studios.
NBC’s previous productions were irreparably marred by attempts to stunt cast shows that should have been the stars themselves. Carrie Underwood sang nicely, but she was a blank, joyless Maria, especially when surrounded by the criminally underused likes of Audra McDonald and Laura Benanti. Allison Williams got more blame than she deserved for Peter Pan Live!, but she had an embalmed and uncomfortable Christopher Walken as an adversary and, again, she had to be compared to Kelli O’Hara and Christian Borle.
With Shanice Williams, found in a nationwide search, The Wiz Live! had a lead who shined when she needed to shine and capably let bigger names upstage her when Dorothy wasn’t really needed. Williams sometimes struggled with her breathing when she was asked to dance and sing simultaneously, but that spoke to a limited amount of stage conditioning, rather than a lack of talent. As an actress, she stood up to A-list co-stars with sass and when the moment was right, she ended the show with an exclamation point, a powerful version of “Home.”
Was Williams on par with Diana Ross or Stephanie Mills? Probably not, especially if you were raised on those landmark performances, but it happens that The Wiz isn’t a show that I hold as sacred in any of its earlier incarnations, so I accepted Elijah Kelley’s loose-limbed Scarecrow as its own enjoyable thing and not as a performance I wanted to compare to Hinton Battle or Michael Jackson. In this show, probably Kelley wasn’t quite as compelling as Ne-Yo’s Tin Man, versatile in both dancing and a lovely “What Would I Do If I Could Feel,” and David Alan Grier’s funny and full-throated Cowardly Lion, but that’s OK. How many viewers only know DAG from his sitcom work and didn’t know he was a Tony nominated song-and-dance man? Well, now you know.
The men were, in general, a bit secondary in this production, which is what happens when you have Amber Riley’s Addaperle really kicking the show into gear with “He’s the Wiz” and Mary J. Blige and Uzo Aduba carrying the second half as the Evilene the Wicked Witch and Glinda, respectively. Blige sneered and bellowed expertly on “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” and, in a show of showstoppers, Aduba’s entrance, lowered from the sky in sugar-spun golden gown buttressed by a pair of bendy dancers, led into a great cover of “Believe in Yourself.”
The show’s other major female lead was Queen Latifah, taking over the traditionally male role as The Wiz. Turning The Wiz into a woman underlined the empowerment message that sometimes gets lost in the pyrotechnics of this musical and its source material and, as both the fraudulent magician and then her exposed alter ego, Latifah brought swagger and attitude. She couldn’t sing the part, though. The Wiz’s two showcase songs both start way below Latifah’s comfortable range and even if she eventually sounded comfortable on the chorus of “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard,” it took her too long to get there and then, following the song, a lot of dialogue was lost in her attempts to catch her breath.
Most of the breath-catching in The Wiz Live! got to happen during the copious commercial interruptions that came just about every time the show hit a big moment. Look it’s the Yellow Brick Road? Let’s ease into commercial first! Brand new day? How about buying some brand new products.
Mounted as proof-of-concept for a future stage production (presumably with an entirely new cast, though they’d sure be smart to recruit Williams for a run), The Wiz Live! was like a shiny new product itself, returning from each ad break with new stages from Derek McLane and fresh costumes from Paul Tazewell. McClane also did the stage work for the two previous NBC musicals, but this was a whole different thing, either because of lessons learned from past experience or a large budget or who knows what. Working around the versatile and colorful LED screens that delivered silos, poppies and more, McLane turned out one ambitious set after another with standouts including the Wicked Witches’ industrial hellscape of a factory and The Wiz’s head-festooned lair. Tazewell, currently earning Broadway raves for Hamilton, played around with eye-popping colors and geometric designs for costumes that were both ostentatious, but also surprisingly user-friendly. Special credit to Tazewell’s sexy poppies, terrifying crows and the Tron-meets-Madonna-meets-1776 get-ups in Emerald City.
With Leon and Robinson working for the stage, Matthew Diamond was tasked with the TV direction, which had some bumps. Several special effects sequences weren’t displayed to their best advantage, either getting too close and exposing their limitations or missing the point entirely. Diamond also struggled to deal with solo singers within dancing groups, either straying from the core performance or failing to get stage-spanning scope. “A Brand New Day” closed with a couple overhead and wide shots and I couldn’t help but wonder where those angles had been in numerous other sequences. Sometimes there was just too much happening between dancers, singers, Cirque du Soleil acrobats twisting and flipping and elements were lost.
Unlike NBC’s previous musical experiments, it’s likely that The Wiz Live! will actually live on in replays and on DVD as audiences try to notice new details, re-experience adored numbers and not have to pause every five minutes for commercials.
The biggest winner in The Wiz Live! is, of course, NBC, which would have been hard-pressed to find audience enthusiasm for another live musical if this one tanked. Suddenly, after this show of ambition, there’s actually cause for excitement. The big loser? Fox, which announced and cast and scheduled Grease Live! when it only had to top Sound of Music and Peter Pan. Well, the bar is raised.