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The Wiz suffers an identity crisis

The Missoula Children Theatre’s current production of The Wiz may be a lot of things—most of them good—but it’s hard to just ease on past the 10,000-pound funky flying monkey perched smack dab in the center of the stage. For every well-delivered solo, every rollicking dance ensemble and every creatively conceived costume, the musical’s rich and significant history—and MCT’s curious neglect of same—remains an unavoidable sticking point.

The Wiz debuted on Broadway in 1975 as an urbanized update of L. Frank Baum’s classic book, The Wizard of Oz, and as a direct response to the 1939 Judy Garland film of the same name. Loaded with new lyrics and music by Charlie Smalls—mostly of the soul, funk and gospel variety—and jive-flavored dialogue from William F. Brown, it was written for an entirely black cast. The story is mostly the same—a tornado sweeps Dorothy up to the dreamland of Oz, where she meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion, and fights a bad witch on her way to ask the great wizard for help getting home—but with more of an Isaac Hayes/Pam Grier slant than the source material. (Example: the Lion gets stoned from walking in the poppy fields and is teased by seductive flower dancers, all set to a Superfly-like score.)

The culturally charged adaptation resonated with audiences still active in the fight for racial equality, and The Wiz won seven Tony Awards, including best musical, and logged more than 1,600 Broadway performances.

Perhaps better known than the celebrated Broadway musical was the dubiously received 1978 film of the same name, stacked with such stars as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor. Symbolically, the film veers even further from its roots—for instance, the cinematic version positions Dorothy as a teacher in Brooklyn being whisked away to Oz during a snowstorm. But despite the tweaks, the film and the original stage production were both tethered to the same citified, counterculture tone—Dorothy doesn’t “follow” any yellow brick road, she “eases on down” it, and she does it with a sass and flair that matches the musical’s chicka-chicka-bow-bow ’70s soundtrack.

The MCT production manages to sidestep much of this historical context. The cast may be almost entirely white, but that’s actually beside the point—many community theater companies have successfully adapted the play with mixed-race or all-white casts. The problem is more an issue of direction, tone and attitude. For instance, Dorothy, played by the clearly talented Sarah Giggar, possesses no snap whatsoever; she’s as straightforward a performer as Garland, so when she delivers the historically freighted line, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” as she pleads her case to The Wiz, it strikes an uncomfortable chord. When The Wiz (John Arvish) channels a Southern preacher for his gospel-tinged songs and tent revival-esque sermons in the Emerald City, but then is revealed to be a teddy bear-clutching Nebraskan, it makes no sense. And why is it that half the characters decide to inflect their lines with overly affected Southern or ghetto accents, while the rest deliver them normally?

The shame is that the cultural miscues overshadow an otherwise talent-laden and robust performance. With more than 70 cast members, the dance numbers, choreographed by Lisa Jourdonnais, fill the stage and infuse the theater with tremendous energy. The live band, complete with backup singers popping up from the orchestra pit, is another touch that works well with the upbeat score. And the costumes, created by Linda Muth, are vibrant and outlandishly creative, from the leading roles all the way down to the freaky-looking funky flying monkeys and the psychedelic munchkins.

The lead performances are solid throughout, but Eden Atwood’s fearless rendition of bad witch Evillene transcends the entire show. Atwood rants and raves like a combination of Tina Turner and Cruella De Vil on speed, and the former television actress turned local musician absolutely nails her foot-stomping performance of “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” to open the second act. Atwood’s stylings are dead-on as she goes at breakneck speed toward brazen, and steals the show in the process.

Perhaps my issue with this Wiz is one of expectations. I’ve seen the musical on stage twice, and the movie once a very long time ago. Each stage performance knew exactly what it was, localizing the material to fit the cast and audience, one from a professional company in downtown Washington, D.C., and the other by a limited suburban high school. The latter was considerably flatter, but it at least knew its boundaries.

It’s hard to tell what exactly director Michael McGill was striving for with this adaptation. Something akin to the original? No way. A colorful, safe, family-friendly version that relies on groovy music to carry the water? Maybe, but if that’s the case, why not employ some creative license, ditch the accents, maybe soften the stoned lion/pole dancing number and sell it that way? As it stands, MCT’s The Wiz is stuck in the middle of the yellow brick road. It’s a showcase for various disconnected talents, but overall a confusing and conflicted compilation—a once-poignant musical mired in an identity crisis.

The Wiz continues its run at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday, Jan. 29. Evening performances start at 8 PM, with Sat. and Sun. matinees at 2 PM. $16. Call 728-PLAY.


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