By Walter Rutledge
The concert version of the 1975 Tony Award winning musical The Wiz debuted on Wednesday, August 12 at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park. The Wiz: A Celebration In Dance And Music directed and choreographed by George Faison marked the 40th Anniversary of the groundbreaking musical. Before the performance started Rumsey Playfield looked more like it was a rock concert than a dance performance; the overflow crowd began lining up mid afternoon for the free outdoor theatrical event.
After a brief introduction by City Parks Foundation SummerStage dance curator Danni Gee, George Faison took to the stage with classic Faison panache. He and former Wiz munchkin Phylicia Rashad co-narrated the concert version of the musical, which featured the songs and dance numbers from the original musical plus new choreography and staging created for this production.
The cast was a combination of young performers, many who have honed their craft under Faison, and original cast members returning in roles and cameos. Darlesia Cearcy (Dorothy) and Anita McKinney (Aunt Em) opened the evening with McKinney’s rendition of The Feeling We Once Had. The tornado dance followed creating a whirlwind of moment. Khalia Campbell wowed the audience as the Tornado Eye. The tall and limber Campbell reminisced the memorable performance of Broadway diva Evelyn Thomas who transported Stephanie Mills and the Majestic Theater audience to Munchkinland.
Ebony JoAnne had fun in the role of Addapearle, and her playful rendition of He’s The Wizard sent Dorothy on her journey to Oz. Her escorts Jahmal Chase, Martel Ruffin, Nehemiah Spencer and Devonte Jerome Wells were the funky yellow brick road quartet complete with trademark yellow Afros and poles. Throughout the entire performance the audience clamped and sang along.
It was evident that time had not diminished the popularity of the Charlie Smalls’ score. Dance Arranger/ Musical Supervisor Timothy Graphenreed and a six piece on-stage Wiz band featuring Edward Callahan (Keyboard 2) John Matthew Clark (Bass Guitar) Paula Green (Percussion) Jeremy Jordan (Keyboard 3) Segdrick Marsh (Drums) and Damien Sneed (Keyboard) kept the face paced production moving. While Oz Singers Chenee Campbell, Anitra McKinney, Matia Washington and Darryl Jovan Williams provided the background vocals.
Garry Q Lewis was an energetic Scarecrow, John Manzari’s strong tenor voice and tap dance acumen endeared his Tin Man to the audience and Reji Woods’ comedic cowardly Lion was entertaining. Inaya Day (the second Dorothy) cooled the audience with her soothing rendition of Be A Lion. One of Faison’s real gifts is showcasing performers strengths; Day also returned to sing Home and again proved a capable balladeer.
A new number, the Emerald City dance, is a sharp, lively and invigorated addition. The stylish sequence complete with emerald-green attire and copper-colored wigs had “Emerald City elegance”. Gate Keeper Devonte Jerome Wells proved a formidable triple threat with his strong dancing, stage presence and vocals.
The Poppies scene became an immediate audience pleaser when six ladies from the 1975 original production appeared on stage. Shirley Black Brown Coward, Paula Brown Douglas, Jamilah Halvorson, Alyson Williams, Joni Palmer and Gina Ellis strutted, posed and brought sexy back. This sextet of sexy sirens seduced the Lion with ole’ school charisma and swagger.
Another standout was Nehemiah Spencer as the Lead Monkey, which remains a pivotal role as the leader of Evilene’s bidding. Speaking of the wicked witch, Elaine Nicole Phifer attacked the role with great command. Evilene was mean (and clearly hungry), but her No Bad News and chant were definitely good news for the audience. Her eventual demise provided witty comic relief and was a clever transition to Brand New Day complete with full stage kick line.
Andre De Shields returned in his signature role as The Wiz. Complete with white jumpsuit, cape and platform shoes he played a major role in this production. De Shields seemed to enjoy performing the role almost as much as the audience enjoyed his performance. The proof was his show-stopping sustained vocals, swashbuckling super hero cape, which billowed across the stage with great aplomb, and De Shields’ three songs ranging from up-tempo, to ballad, then gospel infused lyrics.
Dorothy returned home with the helped of Glinda and an armada of white-clad dancers. Dee Dee Bridgewater floated on stage via the shoulders of four men in white tuxedos. Bridgewater’s impassioned delivery had the élan of an accomplished performer and again made us all “Believe”.
The Wiz celebrates 40, but this classic musical remains timeless. Faison continues to do what he has done for more than 40 years, to mold talented young artists- this is his true genius. Even before The Wiz Faison trained dancers, many of the returning artists met Faison as teenagers; and eventually became members of his dance company the George Faison Universal Dance Experience.
The number of artists who have experience “The Faison Boot Camp” and now have profession careers are as plentiful as the lights on Broadway. All speak of him with respect, admiration and great affection. Congratulation to George Faison, co-producer Tad Schnugg and The Wiz as they continues to “Ease On Down The Road”.
The production moves uptown to Marcus Garvey Park for two final performances Thursday, August 13 and Friday, August 14. The evening begins at 6:45 with a master class by Darrin Henson. Seating is first come first serve so please come early.
In Photo: 1) Reji Woods 2) Ebony JoAnne and Darlesia Cearcy 3) John Manzari 4) Darlesia Cearcy and Dee Dee Bridgewater
Michael Seto Photographer
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