The Wiz Enchants at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre

Originally published at: The Wiz Enchants at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre - People of Con

Author: Travis Hayward

The pre-Broadway engagement of The Wiz at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles has taken audiences on a magical journey filled with fresh perspectives, vibrant performances, and an updated narrative that breathes new life into the beloved classic. Under the direction of Schele Williams (The Notebook The Musical) and with an innovative new script by Amber Ruffin (Some Like It Hot), this production reimagines the Land of Oz with a contemporary flair, offering audiences a delightful fusion of tradition and modernity. In contrast to a typical Broadway revival, this production launched with a national tour before making its way to Broadway. While this has been done with a few shows in the past (i.e., Grease in 1994 and Jekyll & Hyde in 2013), it is a rare commodity to have a full-fledged national tour before Broadway opening. This is an intelligent marketing strategy on the producer’s part; to drive up the show’s hype and afford audiences that may not be able to get to New York the chance to see the actual Broadway cast.

I personally had never seen a live production of The Wiz before and was only familiar with the 1978 film version as well as the 2015 NBC television production, The Wiz Live!. The film and songs of The Wiz have been a massive part of my life since childhood. The classic 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz was a staple in my house growing up, but seeing the story reimagined through the eyes and experience of black artists captivated me, even as a young child. I wore out the VHS tape growing up, and as an adult, I still view the movie every Thanksgiving. My friend Stefanie (co-host of Happiest Pod on Earth), who accompanied me to this performance, had also seen the movie, but it wasn’t quite as much of a childhood staple for her as it was for me. That being said, the elaborate staging, costumes, imagery, and enthralling music of The Wiz rocked both of our socks off.

Nichelle Lewis shines as Dorothy in her professional theatre debut, bringing a youthful energy and a powerful voice to the iconic character. Her heartfelt and captivating performance makes her a standout in the ensemble cast. Avery Wilson’s Scarecrow, being of no brain, is portrayed as more of a lovable buffoon than in previous incarnations. His rendition of the Michael Jackson hit, You Can’t Win, electrified and wowed. Phillip Johnson Richardson brings the Tin Man to life in a way we haven’t seen before. As a result, losing not only his heart but his memories of his family adds a whole new layer of pathos for the character. Kyle Ramar Freeman also delivers an incredible performance as Lion. Notably, the decision to portray Lion as queer adds a layer of depth to the character and the Act I show-stopper Be A Lion. These added layers contribute to the production’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity.

Ruffin’s updated book weaves a new backstory for the main characters, providing a fresh perspective on their motivations and journeys. The narrative explores themes of identity, friendship, and self-discovery, resonating with audiences in a way that feels both familiar and contemporary. The decision to expand the character of the Wicked Witch Evillene, portrayed with extreme gusto by Melody A. Betts, adds complexity to the story, turning her into a formidable and multifaceted antagonist. Her wailing rendition of the famous tune, Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News, sent the audience to their feet right in the middle of the show.

Another true standout for me was Allyson Kaye Daniel’s portrayal of Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North. Though she does not sing the song He’s the Wizard in this production, she still commands the stage and steals every scene she’s in with her razor-sharp wit and comedic timing.

Deborah Cox’s Glinda exudes grace and wisdom, though I did find it odd that the creative team chose to give her Addaperle’s song in the first act for seemingly no other reason than to have Glinda sing a second song. Traditionally, Glinda only has one song in the second act – the powerhouse eleven o’clock number, Believe In Yourself.

Wayne Brady has a small but essential role as the titular Wiz, whose reinterpretation as a more complex and nuanced character adds layers of intrigue to the narrative. In this version, The Wiz is fully aware and proud of the fact he’s a con artist. He has no remorse for sending our band of heroes on a wild Witch-chase and quickly reminds them that they’ll have to figure out their problems. Brady’s charismatic performance brings a more modern sensibility to The Wiz, creating a memorable and dynamic portrayal.

The Wiz at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre successfully reimagines a classic with a contemporary twist, offering a fresh take on familiar characters and themes. With outstanding performances, a compelling script, and visually captivating production design, this pre-Broadway engagement sets the stage for a triumphant return of The Wiz to the Broadway scene. Audiences are in for a treat as they witness Oz’s magic, heart, and soul brought to life in this enchanting and modernized production. Look out, Broadway, here they come!

The production’s visual elements are equally impressive, with vibrant set designs, dazzling costumes, and inventive choreography that elevate the magical atmosphere of Oz. The creative team’s commitment to updating the production while honoring the original essence of The Wiz is evident in every aspect, resulting in a visually stunning and thematically rich experience.