Singer/actor Paris Bennett paused and sighed as she headed into a recent rehearsal of “The Wiz.”
Then she clicked her heels.
It’s a ritual for the onetime “American Idol” finalist, who has had a wild ride with TV stardom, early motherhood and, recently, health struggles. In December, she revealed on Instagram that she has the sickle cell anemia trait, which has caused swelling and pain that make it hard to perform at times.
All this helps her to deeply identify with her role in “The Wiz,” the Kansas girl caught up in a tornado and transported to Oz.
“You have to understand,” she said, “I make my friends call me Dorothy.” She laughed. “Really.”
“The Wiz” has the potential to be a blockbuster for Children’s Theatre, where it begins previews Tuesday, and Penumbra Theatre, which is coproducing this African-American musical take on “The Wizard of Oz” in an unusual collaboration.
For Bennett, 29, the role is something she’s long dreamed of. She starred in “The Wiz” as a student at Edina High School but has never been in a professional production — although she did audition for NBC’s live broadcast of the musical in 2015.
“I like to think I’m the real-life Dorothy,” she said, sitting on a sofa at her mother’s Brooklyn Park home with her daughter, Egypt, nearby. “All the amazing things I’ve seen and done in my life, all the things good and bad that I’ve been through, align with the journey that Dorothy takes in this crazy, magical, mixed-up world. Everywhere she goes, she shares pieces of herself with all the people she meets.”
Also crazy and magical is the fact that her mom, Jamecia Bennett — a famed singer in her own right — plays Glinda in “The Wiz.”
“It’s cool to have her as my mother in real life and my mother figure in the show,” said Paris.
When director Lou Bellamy called her for this production, she was, as she says, “over the rainbow.”
There’s a nice symmetry to Bennett’s return to the Children’s Theatre stage. She made her professional theater debut there at age 9, playing a sweet Caribbean girl in “Once on This Island.” Now she’s coming to rehearsals with her own 9-year-old.
But Egypt is not in the show — nor is she into showbiz, even though she comes from a storied musical family.
Jamecia Bennett is the star soloist of the Grammy-winning Sounds of Blackness, which used to feature Jamecia’s mother, Ann Nesby, and aunt Shirley Marie Graham as lead singers. And Paris, of course, finished fifth on “American Idol” in 2006. (“Unbelievable!” Simon Cowell exclaimed when he first heard her sing. “Where have you been hiding?”)
A home-schooled child who loves to play hockey, Egypt “likes to stay in the background and likes to play with the [audio control] boards” in recording studios, Bennett said. “She thinks that all the people in rehearsal are her friends.”
Grounded in black culture
The cast is studded with high-wattage talents, nearly all of whom have worked together throughout the decades. In fact, other theaters in town are grumbling about not being able to find black stars for their shows.
The roster includes charismatic crooner T. Mychael Rambo as the Wiz; eminent diva Greta Oglesby, who plays Aunt Em and the Wicked Witch Evillene; and Dennis Spears — another blood relative of the Bennetts’ — as Tinman. Noted maestro Sanford Moore has been arranging and updating the music, and Broadway choreographer Patdro Harris has been putting the cast through their paces.
“I’ve lost 7 pounds since the start of rehearsal,” Spears said breathlessly after a recent rehearsal. “My bones may be 61 years old, but there’s no way that I’m gonna let the [youngsters] in the show outdo me.” (He cops to long baths with Epsom salts and grain alcohol to keep himself pain-free.)
Director Bellamy, the co-founder of Penumbra, has worked with all of the principals in the show. He has combined elements from the 1978 film starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson and the 1975 Broadway version with Stephanie Mills, and set “The Wiz” in New York, grounding the story in black cultural history.
Dorothy lands in Coney Island after being transported by a tornado from the historically black town of Nicodemus, Kan., Bellamy explained. Locales include Central Park and Harlem, where the Wiz holds court at the Apollo Theater. It’s a framing device that recalls the Great Migration, which saw African-Americans flee persecution in the South to find freedom and opportunity in the North.
“I wanted to get all the sophistication, intelligence and all that stuff in there,” Bellamy said. “It’s important to have the cultural underpinnings with this overlay of talent, placed forth in beautiful, stunning and respectful ways.”
Model for other theaters?
This is the first collaboration between Penumbra and Children’s Theatre, and both companies have invested deeply in the relationship.
Their boards have held joint meetings, with CTC’s board feted at Penumbra last month for the opening of “Black Nativity.” Their leadership teams — artistic director Sarah Bellamy and managing director Amy Thomas at Penumbra, and artistic director Peter Brosius and managing director Kimberly Motes at CTC — have had monthly confabs for a year, planning strategy and sharing subscriber lists.
Both theaters are bringing their strengths to bear on the production.
“We’re both leaders in our areas,” said Motes, noting that Penumbra is one of the foremost exponents of the African-American canon while CTC is the nation’s largest and most esteemed company for youths and families.
“We both empower voices” of underrepresented constituencies, Brosius added.
Sarah Bellamy said the collaboration could be a template for other U.S. theaters.
“We’re very aware that the field is looking for models for equitable partnership, not just [theaters] but also funders,” she said. “What’s exciting is to have something with longevity. One of the lessons we learned from previous partnerships is that they can’t be centered around artistic directors. People leave, move on and fall out.”
That’s a lot riding on the shoulders of the “Wiz” cast. But it’s not a burden, said Paris Bennett, whose commanding presence belies her just-shy-of-5-foot frame.
“Dorothy meets other people who have fears that are not exactly like hers, but they’re looking to overcome them,” she said. “If it’s within my power, I’ll try to meet every little girl, every little boy, who attends the show. They all think I’m their age, anyway, because of my height. And I would encourage them that they can do whatever they want to do.”
She teared up, thinking about her trajectory, from being a star to battling illness.
“I’ve worked in front of thousands of people, performed for millions on TV,” she said. “This show — right here, right now — is, by far, the best for me.”