It was nearly fifty years ago that “The Wiz” hit Broadway with its unique urban update of the L. Frank Baum classic to the contemporary Black culture of its day. It was a work indelibly associated with the 1970s, so how to update an update?
The Broadway-bound fiftieth-anniversary revival of “The Wiz” gets to the heart of what made “The Wiz” so special: song and dance. In this case, make sure that every member of the cast can sing like they are leading a revival meeting, as if their lives depended on it with maximum vocal virtuosity and intensity. Surround them with an onstage congregation of life-affirming dancers who can shake up—and literally dance up—a storm and can sing praiseworthy affirmative amens. Clothe everyone in dazzling otherworldly attire of bright bursts of color and textures that manage to look organic and stylish. Combine the best of imaginative physical sets with bright digital backgrounds and music arrangements that preserve elements of the seventies while always managing to feel contemporary. This is a dazzling production that is a feast for the eyes and ears.
The dramaturgical whittling away of “The Wiz” reflected in this reductive rethinking of the book also further spotlights what the Tin Man is craving: all heart, all the time. Can there be too much heart? When the narrative serves merely to move from one song to another—wonderful though they are and as spectacularly as they are performed—the effect comes off as a colorfully staged high-octane concert that never loosens its grip. Some of the opening-night audience was so catapulted by this energy that a couple of folks spontaneously shouted out affirmations to the characters in key moments as if they were giving testimony in a church. “That’s right, Dorothy! Don’t do it” shouted an audience member when Dorothy (Nichelle Lewis) won’t give up her silver slippers to Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (Chicagoan Melody A. Betts, who also opens the show as Aunt Em).
Dorothy has a journey to make, but in this telling, Oz and Kansas could be part of the same neighborhood, apart from Kansas being sepia-toned and Oz being Technicolor on steroids. The underlying presupposition of this “The Wiz” is that the story is our own, that we already know every detail as an archetype. Dorothy heads home but she never really left.
Through December 10 at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph. Tickets available at broadwayinchicago.com.