What could be better than a critically acclaimed Children's theatre and a nationally recognized African American theater company? Well that answer is here and it's when they put their heads together for a truly awe inspiring collaboration between Penumbra Theatre and Children's Theatre Company with a production of The Wiz adapted from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
The Wiz is a different take on the classic tale of Dorothy and Oz. This original Broadway production was nominated for 8 Tony Awards in 1975 and won 7 of them including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a musical. Due to it's critical success, this musical was considered a breakthrough for large-scale big-budget musicals featuring an all-black cast and laid the ground work for musicals like Dreamgirls to succeed. A mere 3 years later, a film adaptation was released with some reprising their roles and Diana Ross playing Dorothy. Jump forward to the late 2010's when big networks began broadcasting live productions of these musicals and NBC produced The Wiz, Live! with big names like Queen Latifah, Elijah Kelley and Mary J. Blige.
The story is a story we all know and love involving a girl from Kansas who is caught in a storm and wakes up in a beautiful and colorful land called Oz. In this production, P/CTC re imagines Oz as New York City. According to the director Lou Bellamy, this production pays homage to the "great migration" made when thousands of African Americans from rural areas made the move to urban living. This is reflected beautifully in Vicki Smith's incredibly designed set. As a huge New York City fan it was so fun seeing popular landmarks like Coney Island and Central Park while still paying respect to the whimsical land of Oz. Many who read my reviews know my feelings on projections. Sometimes they are great and sometimes they are horrible...spoiler alert: this one was great. Craig Gottschalk utilizes a backdrop projection screen just the right amount. It serves its purpose in elevating each scene without the actors and audience relying on it too much.
Costume Designer Mathew LeFebvre also creates a stunning array of costumes from loud, colorful and vibrant munchkins attire to the definition of "serving looks" with ensemble Emerald City citizens. My absolute favorite was the stunning black and red gown that the Wicked Witch of the West, Evillene was wearing. If I were P/CTC I would highly suggest getting MIA to create an exhibit around these costumes and production in general because the costumes are easily one of my favorite things.
This whole production had a lot of "firsts" for me. I've never seen The Wiz. I've never heard the music. I've also never seen a production by Penumbra Theatre (their media manager will be getting an email from me by the end of the week begging to add me to their media list). With all that as well, I did not recognize a lot of the names on this cast list which is always fun because it keeps the show nice and fresh bursting with talent and reminds me how fortunate I am to be living in the Twin Cities where we protect and nurture such talent. That being said, this cast was...I can't even begin to describe how utterly fantastic they were. I really want to make as many shout out's as possible to such a phenomenal cast so here I go:
- Paris Bennett plays Dorothy flawlessly. Her combination of sass and power belting left me literally wanting her to sing "Home" over and over again. I'd pay money to watch her sing that song on an empty stage, that's how good it was. Her delivery and comedic timing were spot on too.
- Also through out the entire production I kept thinking "How old is she?" because of her willingness to fully act like a young girl but with a voice of a well trained and seasoned actress. Spoiler Alert: She's 29 but doesn't look a day older than 18. Age is just a number but it was quite a fun little fact I learned.
- Greta Oglesby sets the mood right away in the beginning of the show that this was going to be with the first number, a powerful ballad titled "The Feeling We Once Had"
- She also played Evillene with such charisma and spice with a evil laughter that all villains should try to replicate. It's such a weird little thing to comment on but all I can think of was how amazing it was.
- Rudolph Searles III plays the Lion and has not only a gorgeous belt but also has a rich tone to his voice that blended so well with the other principal roles.
- Dwight Leslie plays the Scarecrow and wins the award for never letting his energy or character fall once. His characterization and physicality of the role was simple but so effective and really had me believing he was a scarecrow.
- Aimee Bryant plays one of the witches named Addaperle and is a delight to watch on stage, bopping and never missing an opportunity for a huge laugh from the audience.
- Also shout out for another beautiful and memorable costume that was the definition of a full blown cotton candy fantasy.
- Dennis W. Spears plays Uncle Henry and the Tinman. His physicality was spot on too with amazing robotic moves.
- The ensemble is all brilliant in their variety of roles including the best group number "A Brand New Day" which had me smiling and bopping along the whole time.
- Jamecia Bennett plays Glinda (and is the real life mother of Paris who plays Dorothy). Her rendition of "Believe in Yourself" had me reaching for the life alert button that I don't own because my heart stopped at how utterly life changing it was. Magnificent!
Hey Twin Citie's Theatre Bloggers! Can I start the ballot for next year's awards because I've got some nominations from this show! This collaboration between Penumbra and Children's Theatre Company runs January 23 through March 18 and surely is a fantastic way to star the new year of 2018. After a few week break from seeing theatre (due to work responsibilities) this was the perfect show to jump into. It's not only a fantastic score with a well adapted story but also features some of the most impressive singing I've seen. Ticket information can be found here.
*Photos by Dan Norman