Ease on Down the Aisle

The best deal of the holiday season may just be William F. Brown and Charlie Smalls's The Wiz, a soulfully sweet and funny take on The Wizard of Oz that's running at the 100 percent kid-friendly Arena Theatre. Where else can your little munchkins see a dancing yellow brick road, a spooky spinning tornado or a forest full of "funky monkeys"?

Everyone knows what happens in L. Frank Baum's classic tale about Dorothy, the wide-eyed farm girl who journeys far from Kansas only to realize that there's no place like home. But if you and yours haven't been lucky enough to see this hip, hot version, you don't know just how magical that land of Oz can be.

Director George Faison, who was the first African-American choreographer to win a Tony Award for his work on the 1975 Broadway version of The Wiz, has made wonderful use of the Arena's in-the-round space in this Theater Under the Stars production. The tornado, for example, whirls out in the form of dancer Dina Wright, who carries endlessly long black silk ribbons that wrap all the way around the stage in a wide dramatic circle. Before Dorothy (Brandi Chavonne Massey) knows it, she's not in Kansas anymore.

She lands in a wild world of sequined gowns, slithering dances and strange characters who are brought to life by performers who know how to crack wise and sing big. Addaperle (Queen Esther), the good witch of the north, sends Dorothy on her way to Oz, but not before dazzling us with her angelic voice. On the road, Dorothy encounters the Scarecrow (Garry Q. Lewis), a floppy-armed fellow in search of a brain. Together, they "ease on down the road," where they meet up with the wonderfully likable Tinman (Anthony Manough). Manough's tender voice and remarkably sweet face lend the robotic expressions of this rusty hunk of metal a great deal of heart. Last, of course, is the Lion (H. Clent Bowers), who in this version remains the best-written of all of Dorothy's companions.

Neurotic as ever, this Lion suffers from "skitsophobicfrenia." He knows all about it because he's been "seeing a high-priced owl for three years now." Of course, "Owls don't give answers." They just ask questions -- like who? Bowers's cowardly pussycat has a big booming voice and a hammy little way of shaking his kitty-cat tail and his fluffy Afro-mane that keeps the audience giggling whenever he steps into the spotlight.

Evillene (Alyson E. Williams), the wicked witch that Dorothy and company are sent to kill, is also a riot. Her braids stick straight up in the air, cartoon-style, as though she just jammed her finger in a light socket. Across her big barrel of a chest are two round plate-sized eyeballs that she blinks whenever she sings. These are the sort of kid-friendly gestures that even grown-ups like.

Best of all, the fresh, fun show is an absolute bargain. The performers run down the aisle, dance with the audience and make the show terrifically accessible to even the cheapest seats in the house, which is more than can be said for the fancy, fuddy-duddy shows downtown.

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Lee Williams