I missed round one, but got to see NBC’s encore showing of the remake of The Wiz, a 1974 retelling in turn of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, set in an urban and African-American cultural context. It has been much talked about and enjoyed, and I’d heard a little bit about Shanice Williams, who plays Dorothy: she’s just 19 and has never been involved in anything this big before, which is its own underdog story. And who doesn’t love that story?
First, let me admit that I am unfamiliar with the 1974 show (though pretty familiar with the 1900 original), so I can make no comparisons there. I approached this as a happily enjoyable, entertaining remake on a well-loved classic, with a twist, and with a young new star. It was all of those things. There were some changes made for the stage – like, Toto is only present in the opening and closing scenes, in Kansas, and doesn’t make it to Oz. I guess it was too hard to get a dog’s cooperation for the whole. The journey from the house-dropping scene in Munchkinland to the Emerald City was much compressed, and I was sorry about that. The magical slippers are returned to silver, which is how L. Frank Baum wrote them, rather than Hollywood’s red. There was a new mini-storyline, wherein Dorothy is actually from Omaha, only recently living with Aunt Em after her parents’ deaths. Thus, in her searching for home she has to parse which of these places really is home, which I thought was a nice addition for depth, and which I identified with personally, too. The original story is very much about a concept of home, but even more complexly so in this rendition. I approve. Oh, and of course: the Wiz is a woman this time around! “His” false public character is still male, but the ballooned-in accident from Omaha is female. I found this a welcome twist.
Overall it was far from a flawed performance, though. There were some rough spots: imperfect synchronization of effects, the Wiz tripping on “his” robe. Though star-studded, the acting was a little uneven. I thought the Tin Man (Ne-Yo) was genius; the Lion (David Allen Grier) was a little underplayed, a little blank. The Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley) actually became a little unlikeable to me, as a character, for the first time ever. Queen Latifah as the Wiz was a great casting idea, but fell a little short: it felt like the songs she had to sing were a little below her usual register, and she didn’t get to belt out like we know she can do so well. Once she stepped out of her Wiz costume, though, and became the woman behind the mask, she hit just the right notes – in portraying her character, that is. I did appreciate Stephanie Mills as Aunt Em – and also appreciated the nod to her role as the original Dorothy in 1974. Shanice Williams herself is beyond complaint, though. I found her engaging and heartfelt, fully committed to song, dance and acting.
As a filmed stage production, I found The Wiz thoroughly disappointing, but that’s because National Theatre Live has got me so spoiled. The work NT Live does is unparalleled excellence: I actually remember myself as being at those shows, rather than in a movie theatre. The camera angle changes: it shows the whole stage (including the front edge, so we can see it’s a stage), different parts in medium-close-up, and close-up angles on individual characters. We see all the set changes (no commercials), so we get the feeling for a real, live stage show. The Wiz clearly took a very different approach. We saw no stage settings (commercial breaks!), and the angle never cut so widely as to give a feeling for the stage itself. For that matter, NT Live shows shots of the audience before and after the show and during intermission, so that I feel like I’m with that crowd in London (or wherever). It remains unclear to me whether there was an audience present for The Wiz. And if not, what a shame for the players. Filming of a stage show is clearly not NBC’s strong suit here.
Uneven performances (but some of them were stellar!), some very fine singing and a classically loveable story make for a pleasing experience, if you didn’t expect too much coming in.