“Ease on down, ease on down the road.” These are the lyrics and theme at the heart of The Wiz, a beloved musical that offers a uniquely African-American take on America’s favorite fairy tale, The Wizard of Oz. Kokandy Productions brings this classic story to life with delightful design choices and rock star performers.
In The Wiz, urban teenager Dorothy finds herself in the strange land of Oz, where she must undertake a harrowing journey down the Yellow Brick Road to reach the Emerald City, where the Wiz can use his magic powers to send her home. The story features many familiar characters—the Scarecrow, the Tinman, the Lion, and more—along with a few new faces, like the charlatan magician Addaperle, who takes the place of Glinda as the first person to greet Dorothy upon her arrival in Oz.
The overall story remains fairly true to the original, although unique twists are added, from the clever (ToTo is not a literal dog but a poorly-behaved suitor or “dog”) to the kitschy (Dorothy wears bedazzled sneakers instead of slippers) to the politically resonant (the Lion is saved in an encounter with the police by a passerby filming the incident, and the celebration of the Winkie’s liberation from the Wicked Witch ends with the performers holding up black power fists). Although the music lacks stylistic variety, famous tunes like “Ease on Down the Road,” “Home,” and the powerfully optimistic “Can You Feel the Brand New Day?” make it impossible not to enjoy the score.
It’s difficult to pick favorites among this cast, as there isn’t a single performer who is anything short of marvelous. Gilbert Domally is utterly charming as the Scarecrow. Chuckie Benson’s Lion is hilariously extravagant, and Frederick Harris rocks the house as the flamboyant, drag queen-inspired Wiz. Sydney Charles leads the cast as Dorothy, bringing both vulnerability and a spectacular set of pipes to the iconic role. But my favorite performance of the evening had to be that of Nicole Michelle Haskins as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. Her powerful belt and uncompromising command of the stage make her two scenes early in the second act a highlight of the show.
Design-wise, the urban-inspired set by Arnel Sancianco establishes the overall mood of the story from the moment the audience enters the theatre. Even more remarkable, however, are costumes by Virginia Varland, which include the Wiz’s dazzling wardrobe, a flurry of green costumes for the citizens of the Emerald City, and a lovely pimp-inspired look for the Lion. The best look in the show, however, is that of Glinda, who arrives at the end of the show to save the day, costumed and wigged to resemble rap queen Nicki Minaj.
It’s easy to see why The Wiz has become a classic of American musical theatre. Kokandy Productions and director Lili-Anne Brown have done an excellent job producing this fun, light-hearted musical.
Location: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago
Dates: Sunday, March 12 – Sunday, April 16, 2017
Curtain Times: Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 3 pm.
Please note: there will be added performances on Saturday, April 1 at 3 pm, Wednesday, April 5 at 8 pm, Saturday, April 8 at 3 pm, Wednesday, April 12 at 8 pm and Saturday, April 15 at 3 pm.
Tickets: $33 – $38. Tickets are currently available at the Kokandy Productions website, by calling (773) 975-8150 or in person at the Theater Wit Box Office.
All photos by Michael Brosilow.