South Mecklenburg High School’s production of “The Wiz” eased on down the road with fabulously choreographed dance numbers, personal touches and gorgeous twenties-style costuming that recreated the 1974 musical of the same name.
An ethnically diverse leading and supporting cast gave a nod to the original all-African-American cast. Scarecrow actor Michael Jemison’s movement and enthusiasm seemed to draw influence from Michael Jackson’s portrayal of the same character in the 1978 movie version.
Movement certainly took a lead role in telling the story. The tornado, for example, was created by a company of dancers that whirled around the stage to stormy sound effects. The flying monkeys and leads celebrated the death of Wicked Witch, Evillene (played by Keiyatta Watkins) entirely through dance in “Everybody Rejoice,” a musical number that had the audience dancing in their seats.
Although the dance numbers were well-executed and full of energy that evoked the magical feel of the show, the performers seemed to rely exclusively on music and dance without a strong company of actors. Jemison and Jessica Braun, as Glinda, however, both stood out as triple-threats – they could dance, sing and act especially well. The audience responded with cheers to Jemison’s solo, “I was Born on the Day Before Yesterday,” as well as Braun’s entrance in “A Rested Body is a Rested Mind.” Playing the title role, Wesley Fields stole the show with his commanding persona and believability. Unfortunately, Gabi Stephens, as Dorothy, did not possess the charisma of a naive girl from Kansas. Her unremarkable voice during “Soon as I Get Home” was bland enough to nearly lull me to sleep, and I couldn’t blame it on the poppy fields. It seemed that her personality, as well as her beloved dog Toto, was absent from this production.
The tech crew embraced the space with personal touches, such as the golden arches of a “McMunchkin’s” sign and a colossal reproduction of Fields’ face. Dorothy’s silver slippers replaced ruby red ones in a nod to both the Broadway musical and the Gilded-age politics in the novel by L. Frank Baum that started it all.
Color played a role of its own in telling the story. The entire set changed from gold to green to signify changes in place and mood. The citizens of Emerald City were dressed as if they’d walked right out of The Great Gatsby, decked out in 1920s dresses and suits with a green twist. The “Emerald City Ballad” looked and sounded like a New Year’s Eve party. The jazzy numbers, played by the professional-sounding school band, helped to set the overall mood of the production.
Out of the four heroes of the show, Dorothy, the Lion, the Tinman and the Scarecrow, Jemison and the Tinman, Lawrence Snipes, had the most chemistry. I could believe that they had just become instantly-bonded friends, while the Lion, Seth Nun, seemed uncomfortable with interaction, even after regaining his courage. He had a lovable personality, but an essential camaraderie between him and the rest of the leads was absent. I think they all needed a reminder that in a show with four protagonists, each lead is part of an ensemble.
Overall, the cast pulled together a charming performance that relied heavily on movement and visuals. What was missing, however, was an emphasis on strong acting and an attitude of team spirit among the leads. With a beautiful set and enchanting costumes, the show looked like a Broadway production.