“The world and the way things are.” Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit’s alumni production of The Wiz

“Sweet thing, let me tell you ’bout the world and the way things are. You’ve come from a different place, and I know you’ve traveled far. … He’s the Wiz. He’s the Wiz. He’s the Wizard of Oz. He’s got magic up his sleeve. He’s the Wizard. And you know without his help it would be impossible to leave. Fantastic powers at his command, and I’m sure that he will understand.” – Addaperle, “He’s the Wizard” from The Wiz

A stranger in a strange land. Myth and parable and children’s literature have long made great use of this trope to teach us lessons in humanity and inhumanity, courage and acceptance. Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandThe Odyssey. Dante’s Inferno. The Phantom Tollbooth. The NeverEnding Story. Star Wars. E.T. On and on.

And, yes, that most all-American of hero’s quest tales: The Wizard of Oz.

I’ve written at length of my adoration, nay obsession, with The Wiz, Charlie Smalls’ 1970s urbanized musicalization of L. Frank Baum’s classic. As a tyke, I recreated the sets from Sydney Lumet’s bleak and transfixing film adaptation out of construction paper and magic markers and Scotch tape. I ruined countless needles on my little Raggedy Ann & Andy portable record player, cranking that two-disc film soundtrack – fished from an Ayr-Way cutout bin in Fort Wayne, Indiana – to insane decibel levels. I can still recite pages of dialogue, and I’d kill to have a Wiz-themed birthday party one day. And the soundtrack was also my gateway drug to all things Quincy Jones – just listen to the original stage score and then study what Q does with said score for the film, deconstructing and rebuilding to such a shiny pop sheen that it takes your breath away.

So, when, in my first meeting as a new board member of Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, I learned that the storied company would be performing The Wiz this summer in a special alumni production, I suggested, if anyone fell through, that I would be happy to play any (or all) of the parts. I’m still waiting for them to get back to me on that. …

Digression … about Mosaic: “Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit is one of Southeast Michigan’s most highly regarded cultural treasures. Our critically acclaimed student-driven performances and national and international tours have brought worldwide attention to Detroit as a center for arts and culture while shining a spotlight on the area’s talented young people and creating new and diverse audiences for the performing arts. Founded by Rick Sperling in 1992 to address gaps in Metro Detroit arts education, Mosaic served 25 young artists in its inaugural year. Today, hundreds of youth from more than 50 Metro Detroit schools participate in Mosaic’s First, Second and Main Stage programs every year. These innovative programs provide expert training, mentoring and opportunity to the area’s young actors, singers, and stage technicians, while fostering a culture of high expectations, active participation and acceptance that serves them beyond the stage.”

Back to The Wiz …  how is Mosaic’s production? Especially for someone as fixated as yours truly? I am happy to report (wearing my critic’s hat, and not my board member one) that the production is warm and funny, contemporary and poignant, zippy and engaging. I said to myself that I wouldn’t cry when Dorothy (a luminous and preternaturally poised Crystal Tigney) sings the sweeping ballad “Home” at the conclusion of her journey through Oz. Nope, not me. I’m tough. Well, one single man tear during the first verse turned into a salty river down my cheeks (and one helluva runny nose) by the time Tigney hit that final soaring note. Dammit.

Directed with heart by Yewande Odetoyinbo, the production is expertly paced and turns the economic scale of Mosaic’s black box space into a strategic advantage, relying on clever costuming (with an assist from Nadia Johnson), minimal props, lighting effects (by Yemisi Odetoyinbo with Seth Swift) and projections (by Lumumba Reynolds), and the exceptional talent (and voices) of the principles and ensemble to sell this oft-told tale.

Odetoyinbo’s direction embraces camp without detracting from the essence of the piece. Glinda (exquisite Krystal Hill who also plays Aunt Em), for example, arrives with a retinue of footmen who hold an electric box fan in front of her so her diaphanous gown billows just so (Beyonce-style). Addaperle (a whip-smart Brittany Myree who doubles as Evilene) works the room like a Vegas comic. The Tin Man (a sparkling D’Marreon Alexander) integrates some charming 80s pop-n-lock into his choreography, and The Lion (a crackerjack, at times heart-wrenching, but always funny Carman Cooper) makes her entrance like a cheesy TV-variety show host, complete with her own back up lion-cub dancers. Justin Shephard is a hoot in the showy titular role, pulling out all the stops as part-time revivalist, full-time huckster.

Tigney, Alexander, Cooper, and Day

Keith Anderson Day, Jr. is a standout as The Scarecrow, invoking both Ray Bolger and Michael Jackson, while making the part completely his own. I’m showing my bias toward the version of The Wiz I first experienced, but the stage Scarecrow’s signature tune “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday” is no “You Can’t Win” (its sonic replacement in the film). Day’s performance of “Day Before Yesterday,” however, has me significantly reconsidering that assessment. Utterly winning, Day struts and pouts, shimmies and shines, landing the number and establishing that this Wiz is going to be something special. It’s a fantastic performance.

Music director DeLashea Strawder – with accompanists Maurice Draughn and Keir Ward – does wonders in the challenging space, nailing every number, eliciting beautiful harmonies and nuanced dynamics from her stellar cast. Javon Jones’ choreography is spry and contemporary, efficiently employing the ensemble to do all the heavy-lifting to convey settings (e.g. Yellow Brick Road) and effects (e.g. the twister that brings Dorothy to Oz). As for that ensemble (Chloe Davis, Myles Dungey, Nya Johnson, Kristianna Marks, Alexandria Miller, Jamiliah Minter, Kaila Scales, Brionne White, and Coleman Ward), they are all in, sassily interacting with the audience and seizing their moments to shine, while always honoring the narrative whole.

Now, perhaps more than ever, The Wiz offers an essential message of inclusion and of challenging the status quo. Home is where the heart is, but, on her journey to rediscover that “feeling we once had,” Dorothy takes her shots at demagogues and bullies, embraces and champions the marginalized, and offers hope to the hopeless. I can’t think of a more important message for today’s America.

Cooper, Tigney, Shephard

Mosaic Youth Theatre’s The Wiz runs one more weekend (August 16-19 with multiple show times) and tickets may be purchased here.

“Well there may be times when you wish you wasn’t born. And you wake one morning just to find your courage gone. But just know that feeling only lasts a little while. You stick with us, and we’ll show you how to smile.” – Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, “Ease on Down the Road”

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

 

Step into the Way-Back Machine: The Book Thief and Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In my estimation, there are chiefly two types of films for young people:

There are the ones where a kid’s innocent yet wary POV on a grown-up world helps both adults and children better understand how tender and tenuous our collective grasp on daily reality truly is (e.g. To Kill a Mockingbird, Babe, The Black Stallion, E.T.).

And then there are those where sheer nonsensical anarchy takes over and society is seen through a colorfully madcap lens to rationalize how unfair and frustrating life can be (e.g. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Toy Story, The Princess Bride, The Incredibles).

 

Today, I saw fine examples of each form: The Book Thief (on DVD) and Mr. Peabody & Sherman (still in theatres).

The Book Thief somehow escaped my attention last fall when it was released. I think it was unjustifiably lost in a shuffle of Oscar hopefuls and critical muckraking (the latter of which appeared perilously close to sour grapes pettiness regarding the runaway success of the young adult novel by Markus Zusak on which the film is based).

Starring Geoffrey Rush (who turns in a refreshingly nuanced and subtle performance) and Emily Watson (always magnificent, walking that fine line between heartwarming, poignant and world-weary) and introducing Sophie Nelisse, The Book Thief offers a look into the atrocities of Nazi Germany from the perspective of a child growing up in a small town where survival is the primary concern.

Akin to essential classic The Mortal Storm, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan (if you’ve never seen it, you must), The Book Thief relates the sweaty, creeping terror of totalitarian Nazi rule as it insinuates itself into the daily lives of everyday citizens. I remember thinking as child, “How could German citizens let this happen?” Both The Book Thief and The Mortal Storm do a wonderful and chilling job of showing that progression.

(And as an adult in post-millennial America, both films give me pause about where some of our political and business leaders might try to take us.)

Rush and Watson’s characters, not altogether altruistically, take lost soul Liesel (played by Nelisse) into their home. Liesel’s birth mother is a socialist who gives her daughter and son up, ostensibly for the children’s safety; the brother is lost to some unidentified ailment en route to their new home. As the film proceeds, we realize that flinty Watson and flaky Rush are actually deep-feeling souls whose private disgust over the direction Nazi Germany takes is balanced with an equally heart-wrenching desire to protect their adopted daughter, their unconventional life, and those human beings who enrich their existence, including a young Jewish man (ably played by Ben Schnetzer) who camps out in their basement to avoid persecution.

The film’s title is a nickname for Liesel, whose character is illiterate at the film’s outset but who learns the liberating power of language and free thought from the books she is able to swipe, despite Nazi attempts to limit citizens’ access to certain literature, art, and music.

John Williams’ score as always is lush and evocative and practically a character unto itself.

There is great supporting acting work throughout, including Barbara Auer as the mayor’s kindly wife who has her own literary secrets, Nico Liersch as Liesel’s charmingly unconventional best friend, and Roger Allam as, yes, the omniscient narrator Death. It is this latter aspect that gives the film its emotional resonance and sharp edge. Death is not spooky or malevolent but practical and even kindly, giving young and old alike a reminder of our inevitable mortality and that every moment should be lived as authentically and kindly as life will allow.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Now, on the other end of the family movie spectrum, we have Mr. Peabody & Sherman, based on my personally favorite segment of Jay Ward’s 1960s TV classic series Rocky & Bullwinkle.

For those unfamiliar with the concept (or how unlikely it is that I am pairing this movie with The Book Thief – just the luck of the draw in today’s viewings!), Mr. Peabody & Sherman relates the tale of a genius bespectacled pooch who adopts a not-so-genius bespectacled boy, invents a time machine (among many other scientific breakthroughs), and takes his son on many educational excursions throughout history.

The premise from the TV show essentially remains the same in this big screen adaptation, including Mr. Peabody’s endless series of painfully-so-unfunny-that-they’re-actually-funny puns and the crackpot Looney Tunes-meets-Your Show of Shows-era-Mel Brooks/Sid Caesar takes on historical figures as varied as King Tut, Marie Antoinette, Agamemnon, and George Washington.

The drawback for me would be DreamWorks Animation’s needless obsession with fart/poop/butt jokes. There were at least a dozen too many; they were jarring and dumb and an ugly distraction from what was otherwise clever and charming.

As in any good kids’ flick, despite the cartoon mania, there is a very real and haunting tension: that the adopted (and clearly adored) Sherman will be taken away from his doting canine father Mr. Peabody because the conventional world cannot accept such an arrangement.

Allison Janney does fine voice work as a beefy busybody social worker who will stop at nothing to upend their happy life, and Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann (someone needs to cast them as a live action movie couple stat!) are starched-shirt-hysterical as a rival set of parents (think God of Carnage-lite) whose bullying daughter is bitten by Sherman at school. (Hence the overreaction of all the “sensible” humans that a dog is raising a boy as his own son.)

Mr. Peabody throws a dinner party to try to settle the matter in a civilized fashion, the kids monkey with the Way-Back Machine, something wonky happens to the space-time continuum, and all sorts of silliness ensues.

Directed by Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little), Mr. Peabody & Sherman is weighed down by its own episodic structure as we careen among historical eras, and, sadly, the ending is the typical lazy “let’s blow some stuff up and regurgitate some nonsensical pseudo science to wrap everything up” conclusion that Hollywood always tacks on these kinds of films.

But for a few brief and shining moments, Mr. Peabody & Sherman breaks through the absurdity and offers sweet-natured messages of tolerance and joy and, yes, like The Book Thief, the necessity of free thought and the critical importance of family, no matter how left-of-center.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.