“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.

 

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.

“What’s more important than the safety of the American people?” RoboCop (2014)

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 the ongoing march of unnecessary remakes of 1980s films, here comes RoboCop clanking his way through the February movie doldrums, after all the Oscar bait has run its box office course.

And I liked it. Quite a bit. (And not just for all the on-location shots of Downtown Motown, including a ton of exterior shots of GM’s Renaissance Center.)

Maybe I am just tired of films that make artistic statements and am ready for one that is a low-rent summer-esque blockbuster. RoboCop certainly fit the bill.

Gone is the original film’s Swiftian satire of Reagan-era fear of one’s own neighbors. No comic undertones in this somber affair. In its place is a grittier/glossier take on post-9/11 American xenophobia and the supercharge it gives to the military-industrial complex’s ongoing economic prospects.

In fact, the film begins with a very telling sequence wherein robot police forces jackboot their way through some unidentified Middle Eastern country, lining the streets with men, women, and children deemed “nonthreatening” only after an invasive infrared scan (or two).

These scenes are interposed with footage of Samuel L. Jackson as an even cartoonier version of a Rush Limbaugh/Bill O’Reilly television pundit casting his death darts at liberal politicians who won’t allow such android stormtroopers to police American streets. Yes, his character proudly wears a little “Stars and Stripes” pin on his lapel and tosses the word “patriot” around the way some people discuss the weather.

Satirical or not, this film isn’t afraid to telegraph its punches.

Instead of sardonic Peter Weller in the title role, we have a more emo RoboCop (his armor is even all black) in Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman. Yes, RoboCop cries. A lot. Kinnaman does a fine job grounding the wackadoodle proceedings, which involve a decent Detroit cop being blown to smithereens, being reconstructed in droid form as part of a martial law experiment conducted by big bad OmniCorp, and then proceeding to solve his own murder much to the chagrin of, well, everyone.

Unlike Weller, Kinnaman as Alex Murphy consistently and genuinely seems distraught by his unlikely circumstances, and the scenes between his otherwise cardboard wife (Abbie Cornish) and son are effectively poignant, chiefly through his presence.

The rest of the cast is fleshed out (no pun intended) by a great group of ringers (and a surprising number of Oscar nominees): Gary Oldman as the Dr. Frankenstein-mad-genius-with-a-conscience who transforms Murphy from beat cop to Tin Man; Michael Keaton as OmniCorp’s believably “country club casual” money-hungry CEO; Jackie Earle Haley as a junkyard dog lieutenant in Keaton’s army-for-hire; Jennifer Ehle as Keaton’s coolly calculating corporate counsel; Marianne Jean Baptiste as a smoothly corrupt police chief; and Jay Baruchel doing his dorky-James-Franco-wannabe thing as Keaton’s chief marketing nerd.

I don’t know that the world really needed a RoboCop remake but, as an exercise in taking a well-worn narrative and using it to tweak our post-millennial materialism, self-preservation, insecurity, and fear of the unknown, it runs like clockwork.