Before going to see “The Wiz,” you may have high expectations: after all, the movie version did star the iconic temptress Diana Ross and the infamous Michael Jackson.
Thus, it is a shame that a show with so much potential turns mediocre because of poor direction. Such is the case with this “Wiz,” the debut show for the Ethnic Performers Guild.
This show, which was first performed a little over 30 years ago, is a reworking of the book and film classic, “The Wizard of Oz,” both the libretto and the songs created with black performers in mind.
Despite solid choreography and performances by the actors, Vernon Riley’s ’08 directorial debut is an amateurish production. (True, theater here at Yale is obviously amateur by definition, but not all theater here is amateurish.) Flagrantly noticeable is the lack of technical experience evident in the production; the sound is erratic, the sets are childish, and the lights are basic.
Probably the show’s greatest weakness is its lack of integration. The dance numbers, while well choreographed by Ayesha Faines ’08, are too long and often beg the question: why are these included?
This is heightened by the fact that whenever any extended dance sequence begins, the principals promptly quit the stage, leaving the dance ensemble to perform a number that seems unmotivated by the dramatic events.
The “Emerald City Ballet” is one such example of a purposeless dance sequence. The number (in the movie version of “Wiz” but not the original show) does not involve the principals, who stand stage right for the entire length of the dance.
Another factor that weakens the show is the lack of live music, and, what’s more, the use of songs taken from the movie or original cast soundtracks. Riley decided to not use a live band because it would have taken up too much space. As true as this may be, hearing prerecorded synthesized music that often overpowers the actors singing on stage makes for a lackluster production.
However, the cast is full of very talented performers, some of whom never realize their full potential. Michael Smith ’06, the Tinman, has a great voice, and in his song “If I Could Feel” one catches a brief glimpse of his talent. Yet throughout the rest of Smith’s performance, one is left unimpressed.
Terrell Sledge ’08, the Wiz himself, is also less than noteworthy: he is off-key in his first song (“So You Wanted to See the Wizard”) and uninspiring during his second (“If You Believe”).
Other performers shone brilliantly throughout the production. Nnenna Ukwu ’05, plays the role of young Dorothy honestly, capturing both her innocence and her strength of character.
Michelle White ’06 is a convincing Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, and even though she is on stage for mere minutes, she makes the audience love to hate her.
Perhaps the best performance of the show is that of Kyle Mitchell ’07 who as the Cowardly Lion, transforms a classic caricature into a completely real and believable character. Mitchell plays to the campy nature of the show, a tactic that evades much of the rest of the cast. Many other performers, while attempting to do the same, do not go far enough to make it genuine.
The actors and dancers seem to be enjoying what they are doing, even if their energy occasionally wanes. But what “Wiz” really lacks is strong guidance: with better fusion of the dancing — and in some cases phasing it out altogether — with the dramatic aspects of the show and a better technical staff, the play could have been great.
But, like much musical theater on campus, the director was unable to control all elements of the production and, in the end, it settled for mediocrity.
This “Wiz” has a long journey to get somewhere over the rainbow.