nytheatre.com review by Nick Mwaluko
August 7, 2009
Here I am in an intimate theatre seated between two very different people with converging interests. To my left sits an elementary school teacher awaiting the arrival of his students, none older than 15. "This is my first time in a theatre," he confesses, "even though I grew up just a coupla blocks from here. So I didn't want to miss this show for the world. And I wanted my students to experience the theatre before they reached adulthood." To my right, an anxious middle-aged mother leans forward, checking on her son who sits quietly anticipating the show's start. In an effort to foster independence, mother decides her son can sit alone, several seats to her extreme right. She smiles as lights fade amid a rising melody.
The Wiz, a musical by Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is playing at Aaron Davis Hall in Harlem, thanks to the Harlem Repertory Theatre, a semi-professional theatre company in residence there. In this brilliantly entertaining musical directed and choreographed by Keith Lee Grant, we learn that Dorothy and friends must meet with the Wiz to fulfill certain wishes. As their high-stakes and entertaining adventure comes to a close, however, each character learns they always possessed the power to live free from fear, to meet their deepest desires—direction, intelligence, courage, and love. The underlying theme of the play is that life's most precious gifts, though invisible, are unleashed when finally recognized.
Clearly visible throughout the play are director Keith Lee Grant's wise and highly creative directorial choices. His minimal cast of 12 actors anchors the story to each character's truth and affords his actors the opportunity to play multiple roles, showcasing their skill set. Danyel Fulton (Dorothy) has fantastic vocal range and a mature but earnest childlike wonder that only adds to Dorothy's innocence. Alexander Bernard's solo as Auntie Em at the end of the play is phenomenal, as is actor Michael J. (Lion, Wiz, Ensemble) who combines comic relief with urban funk for a cool performance that earned enthusiastic applause several times throughout the evening. A show-stopping solo—"I'm A Lion In My Own Way"—brought the audience to its feet as did "Can You Feel A Brand New Day" when members of the audience left their seats to dance with the actors. A live band plays music to further include the audience in the action. In all, the pared-down theatricality makes the experience honest and intimate, a wise decision by director Grant given the inherent intimacy of a musical about people's deepest fears and wishes.
If the relationship between fear and wish-fulfillment is at the heart of the play, one cannot escape its relevance to the community in Harlem, particularly given the current political climate. The musical is set in an Africanist world; director Grant's theatricality references Africanity by fusing the action into the audience, by blurring the lines of demarcation between the musicians, actors, and audience. I saw children and adults of all walks in the audience, from babies to developmentally-challenged teenagers in wheelchairs to adults happy to experience an American classic yet again. With ticket prices at a very reasonable rate, it seems the invitation to watch this fantastic musical extends beyond its immediate community to any and everyone of any and every age. I highly recommend you do so as soon as possible.