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Thursday, March 11, 2010

First Stage’s ‘The Wiz’ Is Worth the Journey

Theater Review

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The Wiz had the children in the audience at First Stage Children’s Theater enthralled throughout the show, from the moment Dorothy took to the stage with a real-live Toto in her arms to the finale 90 minutes later when her long, strange trip through Oz brought her full circle to Aunt Em and Uncle Henry.

This Wiz was a first of sorts, as the company created a new production for young audiences based on the hit 1975 Broadway musical that retold the traditional classic using African-American cultural references. This world premiere debuted in Milwaukee at First Stage last weekend, with hopes that other companies will produce the new version as well.

Based on opening night’s performance, this condensed adaptation will charm and delight audiences of all ages.

Much credit goes to First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank, who has brought together a talented ensemble of adult and child actors under the fast-paced yet engaging direction of Tony Horne. The children’s “Glitter” cast performed opening night and Alyssa Sylvester shined as Dorothy (in her silver slippers in place of the ruby red shoes), balancing a childlike fear and wonderment with an adult-like determination to get back home.

As Dorothy’s trio of fellow travelers, Parrish Collier (Tinman), David R. Weaver Sr. (Lion) and Jackson Evans (Scarecrow) provided lots of laughs amid funny physical bits and consistently strong vocals, as did Ericka Wade’s sassy, bossy Evilene (read: Wicked Witch of the West).

In dual roles as Aunt Em and Glinda, Sheri Williams Pannell brought an underlying strength and foundation to the show’s meaning with her carefully measured words and songs (especially the ending “Believe in Yourself”). And as Uncle Henry and the Wiz himself, Ron Lee catapulted the show’s energy level to new heights with his very funny send-ups of evangelical proselytizing and streetwise comebacks.

When Dorothy remarks that she doesn’t know what to do when she first lands in Munchkin Land, the well-meaning Addaperle (the Good Witch of the North, played to great comic effect by Tiffany Cox) responds, “That’s all a part of growin’ up, honey.”

The Wiz is definitely worth the journey.

First Stage’s The Wiz (recommended for adults and children over the age of 6) runs through March 28 at the Todd Wehr Theater.

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