Whip and nae nae, compassion and inclusion. A beautifully revitalized The Wiz (Live!)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’ve always been an Oz-nut for as long as I can remember. Oh, the annual viewings of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz every holiday season (pre-VCR/DVD/YouTube era, you got one shot, once a year!). I read the books backwards and forwards and mentally catalogued all the fantastic creatures, political intrigue, and oddball illustrations. (“Dorothy Gale” was my “Harry Potter.”) Occasionally, I would delve into other adjacent fantasy lands like Narnia or Wonderland when I needed to cleanse my palate. I devoured any and all minutiae about what motivated L. Frank Baum to write the series (hint: he was pretty irritated with scandal-ridden American politics … go figure).

Championing Gregory Maguire’s postmodern, animal-rights-skewing reimagining of the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West, I eventually viewed that recent stage musical adaptation twice (though I think it misses the mark when it comes to Maguire’s prescient political allegory). I obsessed over all the trivia I could find on the various cinematic and stage and television journeys over the rainbow and across the Yellow Brick Road. I even love The Boy from Oz – apropos of nothing.

Oh, did I collect STUFF! Stuff upon stuff always competing for space with my ever-growing piles of Star Wars and comic book ephemera as well. Oz has generated mountains of merchandise in the past 100+ years: toys, dolls, figurines, posters, and, yes, those ubiquitous-in-the-1980s Franklin Mint plates. I have a couple of those hand-painted platters (thanks to my gracious parents) … but where and what was the “Franklin Mint” exactly? Does anyone really know? Was it just in some dude’s basement and his name was Franklin?

However, if pressed to pick one corner of Oz-mania that is my absolute fave, the moment that cemented my fascination with the various permutations of this quintessentially American fantasy series? That would be The Wiz, and particularly the 1978 Sidney Lumet-directed film version starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Richard Pryor, and Lena Horne. It’s a polarizing entry point to be sure. While the stage version of Charlie Smalls’ musical was a huge and historic Tony-winning hit in the early 70s, the film was a colossal bomb, vilified for the liberties it took with the source material, and there was a bit of ageist/sexist foolishness over Lumet casting then 33-year-old Diana Ross as Dorothy. (“Too old,” the people cried! I’d love to be 33 again …)

I wrote at length on The Wiz in an embarrassingly fawning love letter in my first book (not humble-bragging – just telling you where you can find it). The movie isn’t without its flaws – too long, kinda dreary, covered in the depressing pseudo-sexual grime that seemed to permeate films of the “Me Decade.” Yet, I would argue that it is the very moodiness of the film, coupled with a Quincy Jones-produced funk bottle-rocket of a score, that gets closest to the populism with which L. Frank Baum approached his work. In that sense, one might suggest that The Wiz movie, remembered chiefly as an unmitigated pop culture misstep, was actually the purest distillation of the grim essence at the original novel’s core.

However, nobody but me likes the nearly forty-year-old flick, so it was high time for a multimedia teardown and rebuild of The Wiz. I’m happy to state that NBC’s live televised holiday musical (from Craig Zadan and Neil Meron who brought us the turgid Peter Pan Live! and the better-but-still-sort-of-moribund Sound of Music Live!) did a fine job reestablishing The Wiz for a new generation.

Director Kenny Leon, aided and abetted by choreographer Fatima Robinson and script doctor Harvey Fierstein, wisely approached the work not as sacred text but as an opportunity for reinvention and reinvigoration. Some of the updates worked beautifully, particularly the orchestrations which, originally (film and stage), were very much “of the moment” (dated R&B, disco) so a refresh was not only in order but essential. Other tweaks fell flat (iPads, sushi, referring to the silver slippers as “kicks”) – a good rule of thumb? If it’s going to sound corny five years from now, chances are it already sounds corny now.

The smartest thing the production team did was cherry pick from both the stage and film scores. Quincy Jones, when he was working on the film, saw that Smalls’ score, even then, needed an overhaul, notably the Scarecrow’s signature tune: the percolating and devastating “You Can’t Win” – foreshadowing Jones’ future blockbuster collaborations with Michael Jackson on the albums Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad – replaced the stage production’s aimless “I Was Born the Day Before Yesterday.” Happily, in this latest production “You Can’t Win” won out, and the Elijah Kelley’s adorably nimble performance as the Scarecrow benefited.

Robinson’s choreography cleverly incorporated many au courant moves but in subtle fashion. Oz has always been a cracked mirror reflection of American society, so moves like “whip” and “nae nae” – not to mention some seriously fierce Emerald City voguing – spicing up Ozzians’ onstage pogoing was smart and fun.

The cast was perfection throughout. Newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy married a steamroller voice with righteous fire that was fun to see. Finale “Home” was a knockout. She seemed a bit lost in the quieter, softer moments of the show, but those skills will come with experience. For a broadcast theatrical debut, she ran rings around Peter Pan Live’s Allison Williams, though admittedly that bar was so low that it sits in a sub-basement somewhere next to Brian Williams’ career.

Queen Latifah gave as good as she got as a gender-defying Wiz. Vocally, she wasn’t quite up to the role, but from sheer presence? There was no taking that stage away from her.

Intentional or not (and I suspect intentional with Leon’s and Fierstein’s involvement), there was an interesting statement in having the traditionally male role of The Wiz played by the indomitable Latifah. In the guise of the strutting, swaggering Wiz, everyone called Latifah “sir,” until it was revealed that The Wiz was not actually a he but a she. When Dorothy’s scruffy companions exclaimed their horror, Dorothy wheeled on them, exclaiming, “There is nothing wrong with being a woman,” and then spun back to The Wiz and chastising, “But there is everything wrong with being a liar.”

I don’t know what to make of the moment, but, in its narrative context of self-actualization and self-discovery and self-worth, it offers an interesting commentary on the relevance/irrelevance of gender, the importance of humanity and honesty, and the authentic roles women can and do play in leadership and in the accountability of others. I dug it.

In this reboot, women ruled Oz. Not just Dorothy and The Wiz, but Mary J. Blige’s Evillene was a pip. She frolicked dangerously close to the land of overacting, but it’s to be expected from a role that, while serving the primary narrative impetus (“kill the witch”), only has about 10 minutes of actual stage time. Her number “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” is a highlight in the score, and the gospel rave-up that Blige delivered did it proud. Blige running around in a half-hoop skirt and stiletto boots that looked like they could serve double duty as murder weapons only added to the, er, fun. And, in one of the few actual LOL moments of the evening for me, Blige had an Abott-and-Costello-esque word battle with a lackey that sparkled with perfect comic timing.

Uzo Aduba’s Glinda had even less stage time than Blige but an even better song in the gorgeous, hauntingly inspirational “Believe in Yourself.” I’m sorry, Aduba, but no one can touch the incomparable Lena Horne in my mind for her soaring, effortlessly fierce performance of that number in the film, but you made it your own. The sweetly schoolmarm-ish way Aduba (Orange is the New Black) approached the role was distinctive and effective, even if her dress looked as though it were made of a million fuzzy, glowing yellow pipe cleaners.

Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy in the original stage production, was a thoughtful addition as Aunt Em, establishing the show’s central thesis in fine fashion with opening ballad “The Feeling We Once Had,” an undulating gut punch of a song, simultaneously channeling the remorse for life lost and hope for life yet to live. Glee’s Amber Riley nailed the playground chant whimsy of “He’s the Wiz,” barreling through the number like her life depended on it. Her acting and enunciation could still use a bit of work, but her powerhouse voice made up for those flaws.

If the show’s authority and presence came from the women in the cast, the zip and the play came from the men. David Alan Grier’s Lion had the most fully realized performance of the night – not a beat was lost, not a note was missed. The show was fully alive whenever he was onscreen; he kept things moving at a clip (which was a blessing given half the three-hour running time was made up of commercials … though, happily, that creepy Walmart family was MIA this year); and any consistent comedy in the production came from him. Elijah Kelley (Hairspray) was an adorable wee dervish as the kind-hearted Scarecrow, and pop star Ne-Yo was all country-fried charm and deep feeling soul as the Tin Man. His “What Can I Feel” was a tear-jerking marvel.

From classics like “Ease on Down the Road” to the jubilant (and timely) “Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day,” the cast of The Wiz Live! performed the showstoppers with vital urgency, as declarations that life can be better – should be better – and that it takes all of us, with the right sense of compassion and of adventure, to get there. I think L. Frank Baum would have been proud. I know I was.

Little Roy

Little Roy

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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.

Shaggy dog biting the hand that feeds: Randy Newman at The Palladium in Carmel, Indiana

Randy Newman (All photos by Don Sexton)

Randy Newman (All photos by Don Sexton)

The first concert I ever attended (at least that I remember) was when my parents took this eighth grader to see Bobby McFerrin at the much-vaunted Holidome in Crown Point, Indiana. Just take a moment and let that sentence settle in … and try to contain your envy. Yes, some kids in the late 80s went to see Madonna or Aerosmith or MC Hammer or New Kids on the Block, but for me it was Bobby McFerrin all the way. And this was before “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” So there.

The show was in the round, with just McFerrin and maybe a piano. I can’t recall. But with his phenomenal, otherworldly musicality, he rattled (largely acapella) through two hours of amazing numbers, not to mention his complete re-creation of the entire film The Wizard of Oz, including that iconic “I’m melting!” bit.

Flash forward, nearly 30 years (sigh), and I find myself yet again riding along in the backseat of my parents’ car, on our way to see another Baby Boomer mainstay Randy Newman, this time in Indianapolis. Nothing takes you back to the feeling of being a child like riding in the backseat of your parents’ car on a long car trip – that intoxicating mix of comfort and powerlessness as you cruise down the road listening to the squabbling and the laughter, to music you don’t recognize and familial history references you do. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.

Palladium

Palladium

So it is with this context that we took in Newman’s concert at Carmel, Indiana’s palatial music hall, the Palladium at the Center for Performing Arts. Such a musical hall Indiana has never before seen – a concert venue that looks like it was designed by M.C. Escher, if overdosed with Benzedrine by Liberace’s hairdresser, after visiting the Palace of Versailles or Disneyland’s “Hall of Presidents.” It really is beautiful and strange, with a byzantine entrance and egress system that made me feel like I was playing Milton Bradley’s Mousetrap.

However, there isn’t a bad seat in the house (nor a reasonably priced one), with Phantom of the Opera-esque box seats at every turn, polished cherry and marble floors, phenomenal acoustics and lighting, and super-cushy chairs.

As we sat there taking in the opulence, Newman lumbered on stage, after a loving introduction by Michael Feinstein himself. You see, Feinstein, a Columbus, Ohio native, helped get the Center established five or so years ago, alongside his husband Terrence Flannery, as a permanent monument to the Great American Songbook and to our musical theater traditions. The space also houses The Great American Songbook Foundation, which is very much worth visiting if you have some time to spare before a show there. They are great about arranging tours.

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

For over two hours, it was just Newman, his piano, and a very responsive audience. Newman isn’t quite the showman that McFerrin was/is – likely an unfair comparison since they’re such different artists, and I am judging them across a divide of 30 years. Ah well.

But what Newman lacked in showmanship, he made up in shaggy charm. He would periodically play wrong notes, stop, look up at the audience, shake his head, and say things like, “I never was a very good pianist.” Then, he would dive back into plunking out notes for many of his signature songs like “I Love L.A.,” “Short People,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”

A highlight for me was his performance of “Love Story (You and Me),” a Newman tune covered previously by artists as diverse as Harry Nilsson, Lena Horne, and Harry Belafonte. The song is a poignant charmer and has not aged a bit. Newman delivered it with aplomb, his frogs-and-molasses voice the perfect accent to the song’s lilting, loping melody.

Newman peppered his set-list, which pretty much seemed made up as he went along, with anecdotes about his life as a child of Los Angeles, as a child of the 60s, and as a child of a movie soundtrack dynasty (he is the nephew of acclaimed film composers Alfred and Lionel Newman and the cousin of Thomas Newman). The casual vibe he affected was on the whole delightful, though a bit more preparation and variety would have benefited the slow-going second act.

An artist of Newman’s caliber with such an accomplished history in pop, theater, and movie music is pretty much just going to do whatever the hell he wants, so that’s just fine. It is unlikely he will come this way again, so we are grateful we got the chance to see him.

Newman at piano

Newman at piano

I never realized just how many songs the man has written about cities and/or states: Baltimore, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Louisiana. And he performed them all. They follow a similar formula, with snarky verses that alternate with hypnotic repetition of said geography’s name. He worked in a wink and a nod to his Hoosier hosts, noodling through “On the Banks of the Wabash” and “Back Home Again in Indiana,” at one point looking around the beautiful Palladium and cheekily observing, “What a dump.”

His show was riddled with his caustic takes on religion and politics, government and capitalism. That was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise conservative community, so I’m sure a few spiky letters to the editor will arrive at the Indianapolis Star this week.

Yet, if he had really wanted to drive a stake through the heartland, he should have played one of my personal favorites, his theme “That’ll Do” from Babe: Pig in the City. While originally sung by Peter Gabriel, their voices are rather interchangeable at this point, so I think Newman delivering this subtle ode to kindness and to compassion and, well, to pigs would have been the perfect punctuation mark on his performance in factory farming Indiana (sad example here). We thought about shouting the title “That’ll Do” (like some rowdy concert-goers shouted “Free Bird” when I saw Tracy Chapman at the Wabash College Chapel years ago), but then we realized he might misunderstand, think we were telling him he was done for the evening, and then walk off stage.

Newman, ever the iconoclast, also worked in his shots at corporate giant Disney, letting us know in no uncertain terms, that while he has appreciated the opportunity, he hasn’t always been thrilled with the artistic limitations imposed. In a funnier bit, he commented how frustrating it is to score something such as a toy soldier falling into a drawer, adding that there is a good 20 minutes of Toy Story he’s never seen, because that particular section didn’t require any musical scoring. He then launched into a fine rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” one of the sharpest musical moments of the evening. Again, I wouldn’t have minded hearing a slightly more obscure tune from the Toy Story saga, the beautiful and heartbreaking “When She Loved Me” (originally sung by Sarah McLachlan and written by Newman).

I guess it is a sign that I am more of a fan than I knew, having left the show enjoying what I heard but wishing for more songs than time had allowed.

Feinstein and Sexton

Feinstein and Sexton

As a final note, we realized after the show was over, that we had been seated in a box next to Michael Feinstein and his family and some potentially uber-wealthy donors. No doubt we probably would have been a bit better behaved had we known this – not putting our feet on the backs of chairs, nor taking flash photos, nor snapping our chewing gum. We are so classy. Regardless, after he finished schmoozing Daddy Warbucks and Co., Feinstein was kind and gracious enough to take a photo with us and to chat for a bit, though I suspect the cleaning crew was dispatched to our vacated box immediately.

Do take a moment to check out Feinstein’s Foundation and the great work they’re doing there, and if you feel like sending a donation to preserve our musical history and keep art alive, I’m sure it would be appreciated. If you find yourself in Indianapolis, definitely stop by for a visit or show. It’s worth it!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. 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 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.