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.

No yellow-and-black briefcases full of money nor aspiring warblers from Topeka: Howie Mandel live at Caesars Windsor

Howie MandelThe other day over lunch with my pal Neil Simon (the consultant, not the playwright) I started to elaborate on a point I made earlier (apropos of nothing) on a blog entry about Gone With The Wind, namely that I love comedians who can mix bawdiness with self-deprecation, raunch with childlike whimsy, spiteful take-down with satiric absurdity. If a comedian is just mean or arrogant or gross for the sake of achieving some false sense of superiority over his or her audience, I ain’t havin’ it.

For me, Richard Pryor wins out every day over Eddie Murphy. Kathy Griffin or Joan Rivers get the prize over Lisa Lampanelli or Sarah Silverman. I’d rather spend an afternoon with Stephen Colbert, Lewis Black, or Whoopi Goldberg than Dane Cook, Kevin Hart, or Bill Maher (maybe). The list goes on.

(Maher may be the exception that proves the rule for me as his egomania, misogyny, and dyspepsia often serve as a brilliant counterpoint to the political zingers he is attempting to land…but he still gives me a headache.)

Howie MandelI’d never really given much thought to how I feel about Howie Mandel, though. Like Gallagher or Carrot Top, he made my junior high self laugh with abandon over the funny voices and the latex gloves on his head, the germaphobia and the OCD. I never watched St. Elsewhere – he may have been genius there. I just don’t know. I adored his charming children’s show Bobby’s World in the 90s, and it always amused me greatly that his helium-voiced alter ego also doubled as the vocalizations for Gizmo in Gremlins and Skeeter on Muppet Babies.

As I got older, Mandel just seemed to disappear into the margins. I may have unfairly lumped him into the buffoonish band of novelty comics, or maybe he just became complacent, hosting game shows (Deal or No Deal) and talent contests (America’s Got Talent) and shaving his head and growing silly-looking “soul patches” on his chin.

How wrong I was.

Howie MandelLast night, we had the pleasure of taking in his stand-up routine at Caesars Windsor in their much-vaunted Colosseum room. (Let me say, though, that the room does not live up to the marketing hype, resembling a giant pole barn and with an entrance/egress system that functions more like a giant game of Milton Bradley’s Mousetrap than an efficient/pleasant welcome/farewell to the audience. It is a claustrophobe’s and a process engineer’s nightmare.)

Regardless, Mandel presented a remarkable show, reminding, at least this viewer, what made Mandel great in the first place. His routine on Saturday night was a mix of prepared and improvised material, free-wheeling in its delivery and free-ranging in its topics. With a boyish pluck, Mandel brought down the house, riffing on audience members’ foibles and any information they recklessly volunteered. His silliest and funniest moments came at the expense of two security guards downstage who seemed more interested in staring at each other than in protecting the funnyman. Yet, Mandel was never mean nor cruel; he was ever-playful and as hard on his own eccentricities as those of the targeted audience members.

Howie MandelMandel was plenty “blue” in his material, but it never offended as he comes across more as a little kid laughing at his own farts than a skeezy old man who bullies those around him with dirty jokes. You know the type I mean, right? You’ve seen such pricks (sorry for the colorful euphemism) at your high school reunions or at family picnics? “Hey, you, listen to something really filthy here. Does it make you uncomfortable? Yeah? Good! I win!” Mandel’s not like that at all, thank goodness.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for his tone-deaf opening act Shuli Egar, a correspondent from The Howard Stern Show, who came off as a hateful little creep and who seems to think life is there for his ridicule and contempt. There were pockets of laughter during his set, but mostly it was a pretty flat affair that could be best described as Don Rickles/Cheech & Chong/Ray Romano as re-written by Attila the Hun. My advice to him? Ditch the hipster glasses that make him look like mean bird, make fun of himself more, and let us see his tortured inner life that makes him so despise his outer one. THAT would be interesting. (Let me add – Stern I’ve always loved. See rationale in opening paragraphs above. This toadie of Stern’s? Not so much.)

Howie MandelBack to Mandel. He shared with the audience that earlier on Saturday he had become a grandfather for the first time, and, rather than coming across as cloying or preachy (a la someone like Bill Cosby), he used said news in clever and irreverent ways to introduce such tried and true Mandellian topics as … his omnipresent fear of germs; the torture of being on the road 24/7; his love for his wife as expressed by torturing her daily with public tomfoolery; the highs and lows of being part of nationally beloved reality shows on the Peacock Network (En…BEEEE….Ceee!); and so on.

Seeing Howie Mandel live is an interesting phenomenon. A forgotten comic (at least to me) becomes vital, vibrant, possibly even essential in that setting. The electricity of his intelligence and his wit, the kindness in his heart, and the acerbic view he projects toward this ridiculous planet make him very winning, indeed. I’m sure the TV shows and the merchandise and the appearances rake in the moolah, but here’s hoping the third act of Mandel’s storied career gets him back on stage, alone and live, with no yellow-and-black briefcases full of money nor aspiring warblers from Topeka.

Detroit always looks best from ... Canada?

Detroit always looks best from … Canada?

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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.