Adolescents often disdain things targeted at youngsters. And simply because of its name, the Children's Theatre Company gets lumped into this uncool-for-teens category. But my reluctant 15-year-old companion had a big change of tune after taking in CTC's latest production. And this lover of all things "Lion King" may now have a new favorite musical.
"The Wiz" that opened Friday at CTC is, in a word, spectacular. A collaboration with St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre, this pizazzy production directed by Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy brims with sophistication and style, from Patdro Harris' gorgeous and evocative choreography and Mathew LeFebvre's eye-popping costumes, to Vicki Smith's colorful sets and Sanford Moore's jazzy, soulful musical arrangements.
This production is so studded with vocal firepower that it feels like not just a theater show but an all-star concert.
The headliner, of course, is "American Idol" finalist Paris Bennett, who brings electric star power as Dorothy, the girl from Kansas who gets caught up in a storm and is transported to another realm in this African-American interpretation of L. Frank Baum's classic "The Wizard of Oz." A vocal dynamo who's also a credible actor, Bennett makes even a relatively slight number such as "Be a Lion" into a showstopper. And her rendition of the climactic song "Home" is something to savor.
But she's just one of a passel of headliners who deliver in fine form.
Jamecia Bennett, Paris' real-life mother, plays the beneficent and beatific good witch Glinda, and is sublime on "If You Believe." Her gorgeous, deeply felt performance could have closed the show. Greta Oglesby, whom we know from roles that emanate dignity and matronly goodness, is witty and unexpectedly warm as the bad witch Evillene, who tells her minions, "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News." Dennis Spears finds lots of humor in Tinman, who needs oil to make his rusty parts move even as he fuels the story with a comic, well-timed performance.
"The Wiz" goes from strength to strength, from T. Mychael Rambo, who is echoingly terrible as the Wiz (intentionally so), to Aimee K. Bryant as Addaperle, the good witch of the north, to relative newcomers Dwight Leslie as Scarecrow and Rudolph Searles III as the Lion.
Director Bellamy has pared the script, cutting to the meat of the story while combining elements of both the original 1974 Broadway staging that starred Stephanie Mills and the 1978 Sidney Lumet film adaptation headlined by Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.
In a similar spirit, the show seamlessly offers the best elements of CTC and Penumbra, offering messages of hope and sufficiency in a time of doubt.
For all those who've been told they lack what it takes to succeed, "The Wiz" says: You are enough. For all those who obsess over what they think they don't have — like the Tinman (heart), the Scarecrow (brains), the Lion (courage) and Dorothy herself (home) — this show says: Look again.
"The Wiz" is a sweet, giddy sermon that speaks to enduring insecurities with verve. And it's worth easing on down the road to the Children's Theatre — regardless of your age.
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