Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
Another adventurous little girl and her dog have arrived to share the town with the National's Annie and Sandy. Her name is Dorothy, her dog's Toto and you'll find her at the Opera House in "The Wiz." If Thursday night's opening is a true barometer - and I'm certain it is - little Renee Harris and her friends will be winning cheers through July 31.
"The Wiz," of course, is the black musical version of L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," thought, alas, the program fails to mention Baum's name. The book by William F. Brown and music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls have nothing to do with the famed Judy Garland flick, so it was a brave thing they attempted 3 1/2 years ago, when this now-triumphant smash had its first and rather chaotic performance in Baltimore.
Risking endless comparisons with the popular movie, "The Wiz" creators were determined to be proudly, gaudily black but at the same time to preserve the essence of Baum's original. This combination has made "The Wiz" black theater's most successful venture. The New York company continues and there are two others on tour.
Apparent even in Baltimore's first performance was the quality which insured this little dazzler's popularity, a sense of wonder, a bouyancy and upbeat flair it also shares with "Annie." This in recent years has been a spirit mocked by too many in mocking positions. Surely by now it must have dawned on the hardheaded that people know that the world is a grim place and that they choose musicals which assure them that they can triumph over deariness. They know it's sugarcoated fantasyland but it eases the pain they'll pay for such temporary cures.
This sense of wonder is visually expressed in Geoffrey Holder's wild, always surprising costumes and melange of colors. From the plain garb of a Kansas farmyard we leap into Baum's imagined world through Holder's sophisticated eyes. There is gorgeous fun in shapes, textures, details, sparklers, feathers, and profligate largesse.The Witches of the North, South and West have been dashingly dressed and so has The Wiz himself.
Faical makeup for them and for the Scarecrow. Tinman, Cowardly Lion and Peggie Blue's lovely Glinda further this whimsical inspiration of Holder, who took over direction in the extended tryout period. The settings of Tom H. Jones and Tharon Musser's lighting contribute to this imaginative land of Oz.
While the score is not inspired and and Small's lyrics suffer through slopy diction and erratic sound projiection, it does serve to give all principals song numbers of character and humor. The most successful of them may be The Witch of the West's "No Bad News" and the Tinman's trio with Dorothy and Scarecrow for "Slide Some Oil to Me."
Decisive, too, was George Faison's choreography dances of rousing vitality which somehow do further the story, especially when they illuminate "Ease on Down the Road," "Funky Monkey" and "Emerald City."
The changes and tightening since Baltimore are considerate but an advantage of the elapsed time is one's ability to accept this cast without comparing it with the original.
Harris, aged 18, would have been an acclaimed first Dorothy and is especially appealing for her dancing grace. She was an early standby for Stephanie Mills and surely is her equal in the part. Ben Harney, the Tinman, appeared in "Treemonisha," and Kamal, the lithe Wiz, was also known as Kenneth Scott, a singing dancer of wide experience.
Ken Prymus, the Lion, and Charles Valentino, the Scarecrow, are richly experienced performers, as are Vivian Bonnell, as Addaperle, Carolyn Miller, as Evillene and Peggie Blue. The company reflects our wealth of performers who happen to be black.
The darling of following so long-loved a movie as "The Wizard of Oz" wins a chancey risk, but "The Wiz" wins out by being faithful to itself and Baum's sense of fantasy.