Ease on Down to The Wiz, A Campy Spectacle at TUTS

The cast of the TUTS production of The Wiz.
The cast of the TUTS production of The Wiz. Photo by Melissa Taylor
For a moment, let’s pretend you’re not familiar with L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. You don't know anythign about it from Judy Garland’s 1939 film, a seasonal staple that will soon grace our TV screens, or from the hit musical based on Gregory Maguire’s book, Wicked. And not from The Wiz, which despite the red-hot star power of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor, flopped. (Though, of course, it lives on as a cultural touchstone and cult classic.) And let’s not pretend you’d know it from the 1902 musical, any of the silent film adaptations or any of the Baum-penned sequels, because we all know you never read or saw any of those.

Good. Now, here’s the story: Once upon a time, a tornado transported a young girl from Kansas named Dorothy to the land of Oz. While trying to find a way back home, she met a Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion, who like her were each in search of something, namely a brain, a heart and courage, respectively. As they complete their journey, we realize that what they were looking for was in them all along. It’s a beautiful little story about self-belief and one that’s resonated for over a hundred years.

And in 1975, the story was re-imagined by William F. Brown and Charlie Smalls as The Wiz, with an intentionally added relevance and resonance for black Americans. Though some aspects changed, so audiences going to the Theatre Under the Stars production can expect some silver high tops instead of ruby red slippers, the heart of the story is the same. And still at the center of the storm, in the middle of the “circus,” is Dorothy, played by Salome B. Smith.

As Dorothy, Smith is all wide-eyed, childlike exuberance. She possesses a spunky youthfulness that can slide easily into backtalk, but she’s full of sincerity, so much so that even though she’s dazzled by everything around her, she still just wants to go home. Her voice, however, is anything but childlike. Smith’s rich vocals wow, especially during her team up with Daniel on “Be a Lion” and her closing number, “Home.”

Smith is supported by Christopher Campbell, Paris Nix and Allyson Kaye Daniel, who all together make up the core four of the story. Campbell’s Scarecrow has a dash of jester and buoyant energy in abundance, while Nix’s Tinman is a bit more of smooth than you’d expect a man with under-lubricated metal joints to be. Both Campbell and Nix show off some impressive physicality, with “Born on the Day Before Yesterday” and “Slide Some Oil To Me” remaining two of the most fun numbers in the show. Nix’s tap dancing is especially impressive, and humorously backed up of course by ax-wielding members of the ensemble. Daniel, meanwhile, is not only an excellent singer, she gets some of the production’s biggest laughs as the Lion. But it’s her almost maternal dynamic with Dorothy where she shines brightest and where you’ll find the heart of the show.

click to enlarge Salome B. Smith as Dorothy in the TUTS production of The Wiz. - PHOTO BY MELISSA TAYLOR
Salome B. Smith as Dorothy in the TUTS production of The Wiz.
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Yvette Monique Clark successfully wears multiple hats as Aunt Em, Evillene and Glinda, and impresses at every turn. She can belt out a song so well, she even caught the attention of Tot Grady, the adorable 7-year-old Yorkie/Shih Tzu mix who played Toto, who couldn’t take his little doggie eyes off her during “The Feeling We Once Had.” Marva Hicks plays a gender-switched Wiz and Aunt Henrietta. Though we only get a glimpse of Hicks as Aunt Henrietta, she returns as the deceptively larger-than-life Wiz, and hits her stride when she can play to the character’s other, more pitiable side, killing it in “Believe in Yourself.” And Simone Gundy works the crowd like a master as Addaperle, vamping like any good bad magician would.

The saturated Technicolor fantasy you’d want from any adaptation of Baum’s book is a beautifully realized spectacle under director Robert O’Hara. Jason Sherwood’s sharp, jagged set piece that handles all of Aaron Rhyne’s clever, whimsical projections and Dede Ayite’s costumes, including the Tinman’s piecemealed body, the Scarecrow’s harlequin-inspired digs, and the pop of yellow under Dorothy’s plaid vest, only add further to the world. And remember, this is a world that includes colorful, inflated, Teletubbie-like munchkins played by members of the ensemble.

The ensemble, including students from Humphreys School of Musical Theatre, are asked to embody everything from a twister to the iconic Yellow Brick Road, not to mention poppies, flying monkeys and crows in a field. Choreographer Byron Easely varied the styles and mood throughout the show, from the forcefully aggressive stepping of the flying monkeys to the pure joy of the ensemble during “Everybody Rejoice.” And behind everyone and everything, Musical Director Darryl G. Ivey masterfully led an 18-piece orchestra.

Unfortunately, judging by audience melt after intermission, not everyone was ready for The Wiz. At least 12 empty seats appeared around me as the lights when down for the second act (and it would have been more but a group scooched down to occupy the seats to my right). It’s no secret that The Wiz is light on book and high on spectacle and performance. Still, the production is fun and the performances are stellar. Yet some members of the audience didn’t seem to appreciate the bold design choices and either didn’t get or didn’t know how to react to certain things, as multiple jokes and references seemed to be met with crickets, not all of which I would consider inaccessible. But even accounting for “taste” – not everyone has the same cultural reference points, not everyone likes such campy theatricality – doesn’t explain the most egregious sin committed by the audience: walking away from the amazing talent on the stage.

If you’re one of those people who left, think about this: It’s musical theater. The music was there. The singing was there. And the theatricality was there. So, if everything is there, why aren’t you?

Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Through November 4. For more information, please call 713-558-8887 or visit $30 to $104.50.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.