Review | The Wiz: a fun, funky fairytale

Penumbra and Children’s Theatre, performing at Children’s Theatre through March 18

Dwight Leslie, Dennis Spears, and Paris-Bennett in The Wiz. Photo by Dan Norman.

The Twin Cities is blessed with many storied theater institutions, two of the most vital being the Children’s Theatre Company and Penumbra Theatre. Both have distinct missions – one to introduce theater in approachable ways to new generations and one to convey the complexities of the African-American experience. As such, their newly kindled partnership is an exciting opportunity to bring an important perspective to young audiences.

Their collaboration debuts with a production of The Wiz, a funky re-telling of The Wizard of Oz featuring an African-American cast and a bevy of gospel, R&B, and soul tunes. It is no surprise that the artistic partnership works, with Penumbra Founder Lou Bellamy’s lively, colorful direction aptly capturing the imaginations of the patrons at Children’s.

You almost certainly know the iconic story—a young, friendly girl named Dorothy finds herself swept away from her Kansas home into a land called Oz, where she sets off on a journey to meet The Wiz, whom she hopes will be able to bring her home. Along the way, Dorothy makes friends with a brainless scarecrow, a heartless tinman, and a cowardly lion, and this rag-tag group finds themselves unexpectedly tasked with taking down Evillene, the wicked witch.

Lou Bellamy has assembled a crackerjack cast—one of the strongest ensembles, vocally, that we’ve seen in some time. American Idol alum Paris Bennett leads as Dorothy and is allowed several opportunities to show off her impressive range, bringing wide-eyed innocence to the role. Also given room to flex their chords are a trio of Twin Cities mainstays, Greta Oglesby as a deliciously villainous Evillene, Aimee Bryant as the bubbly good witch Addaperle, and Jamecia Bennett as her benevolent counterpart Glinda.

The men in the cast are equally impressive, providing colorful characterizations throughout. Dwight Leslie provides a whimsically floppy friend in his Scarecrow, Rudolph Searles III is an endearing Lion with roaring vocals, Dennis W. Spears’s Tinman brims with affection, and T. Mychael Rambo easily commands the stage as the larger-than-life Wiz, even when he’s taken down a peg. Plus, the ensemble crackles with energy—from the lovable munchkins to the living yellow brick road, everyone is clearly having a great time with the material.

Lou Bellamy has fashioned Oz to mirror New York City, and the gorgeous Emerald City very closely resembles Harlem—Apollo Theater included. Even with the aforementioned performances, the show’s design impresses, with vibrant costuming (by Matthew LeFebvre), dynamic set pieces (by Vicki Smith), arresting lighting (by Don Darnutzer), and engrossing soundscapes (by Sten Severson). It really is quite a ride.

With all those accolades given, it must also be said that the book of The Wiz does have several slight flaws. Most noticeably, Dorothy is underdeveloped, and as the show hurls her into adventure with scant exposition, her personal arc suffers from weak characterization. Dorothy’s flimsy characterization and the breakneck plotting offer little breathing room and ultimately lessen the impact of the show’s celebration of the virtues of self-confidence and friendship. Yet, as a show intended for children, the speed may well be an asset for younger viewers with short attention spans. (But do note that there are several scary moments that may prove too much for very young viewers.)

All things considered, this collaboration feels like the start of a beautiful friendship and bodes well for what may come in the years ahead. As proven by the audience members around us getting in on the action and participating throughout, The Wiz is undeniably a fun ride that shows off the unique strengths of each company.

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