Friday, June 19, 2009

The Wiz

photo: Robert J. Saferstein

The tornado-sized vacuum at the center of this Wiz is pop star Ashanti, a pretty, pleasing-toned singer who has been pitilessly stunt-cast as Dorothy. From her first scene you slump in your seat and settle in for a long evening - she doesn't have the training to even make calling after Toto believable. It isn't that the role absolutely requires a skilled actress - undertrained teens have done all right by it with little more than thoughtful pretending in the past - but it does need energy and heart, and Ashanti hasn't been urged in that wide-eyed direction. (An understatement; after The Wiz rewards Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man but comes up empty for Dororthy, Ashanti has been directed to plead "What about me?" with the outraged indignation of an entitled teen rather than with the fragile anxiety of a child.) With a void where its heart should be the musical, one slice after another of 70's black-tastic retro, can't amount to more than concert and dance pageant. As such it has two enormous virtues in its favor - the strength of the City Center Encores orchestra, and Andy Blackenbuehler's electrifying, often thrillingly inventive choreography. To my mind, Blackenbuehler is one of the most interesting and exciting of the newer choreographers and a lot of his work here wows. Not all, however - the production, with a playing area cramped by the on-stage orchestra and a not especially useful unit set, relies almost entirely on Blackenbuehler for its spectacle and "less is more" comes to mind. I assume that Blackenbuehler is responsible for having the performers repeatedly "Ease On Down The Road" mostly up and down the stage rather than across, a very curious choice that halts any illusion of an ongoing journey.

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