Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great cast, tons of fun
Cons: Obviously a product of the 70’s (but still tons of fun)
The Bottom Line:
Twist on a classic
Given great new production
And filmed live on stage
Ease on Down the Road Again with The Wiz Live!
I must confess, I had never seen The Wiz until NBC’s production of The Wiz Live! last week. (Actually, when you consider the number of classic musicals I’ve never seen or just seen for the first time in the last couple of years, that’s not so surprising). So when I sat down to watch the new version, I had no expectations or preconceived notions. What I discovered was that I was transported into the story within minutes and was having a marvelous time.
Even if you’ve never seen this musical, you are familiar with the story. Originally created for Broadway and turned into a film in the 1970’s, this is the story of The Wizard of Oz. The twist is that it has an all African American cast (there was one exception in the chorus here). It’s been updated with some 70’s urban jokes and references, and the songs all have a 70’s Motown flavor.
Just in case you aren’t familiar with the story at all, we follow Dorothy (Shanice Williams), a teen who is living on her aunt’s farm in Kansas but desperately wants to return to her friends in Omaha. When she gets caught up in a storm, she finds herself in Oz. Her only hope of getting home lies in meeting The Wiz (Queen Latifah), who rules over The Emerald City. Along the way, she meets Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley), Tin Man (Ne-Yo), and Cowardly Lion (David Alan Grier), and they join her, searching for rewards of their own. Will The Wiz be able to help them?
This is the third in NBC’s annual productions where they take a classic stage musical and film a live production of it. It’s met with mixed results since live theater without an audience and filmed doesn’t always translate well to the screen. In my mind, this production was the best one yet.
As is always the case, the sets, makeup, and costumes were fantastic. No expense was spared and they looked great. Yes, they are still obviously soundstages, but that’s part of the charm of these productions. They are meant to be soundstages and not sets for another film version. Put yourself in that mindset, and you’ll get swept up into the story before you know it.
The actors were all top notch this year as well. Of course, that’s not surprising when you consider all the greats in the cast. Still, no one was nervous or just going through the motions like I’ve felt over the last two years. They were engaging and fun to watch, bringing their characters to life perfectly. The new comers, like lead Shanice Williams, were all perfect as well. In fact, I predict a long, bright career for Shanice; she was fabulous! And in a fun note, Aunt Em was played by Stephanie Mills, who originally played Dorothy when the show moved to Broadway in 1975.
In fact, that would be my only real complaint about the film. It is obvious that the musical was created 40 years ago, and if you don’t like Motown, you won’t like the music. Additionally, a few of the jokes were dates. However, I found myself laughing through much of the production since most of the jokes still work, and smiling at the music. Again, know the roots of the film going in and you’ll be fine.
There are plenty of dance numbers; this is a musical after all. They were all fantastic, and the cast was a lot of fun to watch as they danced across the various stages.
Since this is essentially a filmed play and not a true movie in the traditional sense, you won’t find that many special effects. Smoke and lights help cover some entrances and exits, and you can see the wires when the cast members are “flying.” The giant puppet used for the Wiz early on is absolutely fantastic and the best effect in the piece. Again, that’s how it is supposed to be. About the only thing that seemed a bit odd to me was the storm that transported Dorothy to Oz, but it’s a minor issue.
In fact, any quibble I had with this production is a minor issue. It was fun from start to finish. If, like me, you aren’t familiar with The Wiz, this live production is the perfect way to view this retelling of an American classic.