Saturday, November 10, 2007

We're Off to See "The Wiz"

Last night we took the Woodyettes to see a local PTA production of "The Wiz." Like "Annie" last year, it was a chance for the Woodyettes to see a couple of their friends from church perform in a theatrical production, and they enjoyed it. So did I, but probably for different reasons.

"The Wiz" was created as a Broadway musical during the middle of the 70's and the "blaxploitation" craze of that period. It featured an all-black cast, hipper music, and plenty of jive. It was considered "ground-breaking" I suspect for those reasons. Three years later, Motown Productions bought the film rights, and Diana Ross muscled her way into the role of Dorothy (a huge stretch). As a musical on Broadway it enjoyed moderate success, running for four years. As a film it flopped pretty badly. Michael Jackson had a good turn as the Scarecrow, and Nipsey Russell was pretty funny as the Cowardly Lion. Diana Ross just never did anything for me as Dorothy. 'Course, I've never been a huge Diana Ross fan in general.

The real problem is that both the musical and the film were extremely topical. The heavily jive-oriented dialogue and ultra-hip settings probably made the show more of a curiousity than a "must see." The film relied on a fantasized version of New York's Harlem for its setting of Oz, and just never worked for me. The music is utterly forgettable, except for the thematic thread "Ease on Down the Road."

Fast-forward about thirty years and the show has taken on a new life. It's cute — quaint, even — to talk jive now. To hear a bunch of kids (of varying colors) spouting this dialogue, complete with all the attitude and ebonic-related head and arm movements, is pretty darned funny. The show is therefore enjoying a second life as a kind of window into the history of black America, with multi-cultural casts doing just as well with the material as the original casts did on Broadway (and, arguably, better than the film cast).

The PTA that sponsored this event covers at least a couple of schools, including a middle school, and the cast reflected that mix. The principles tended to be sixth or seventh grade kids, and the chorus made liberal use of every kid from kindergarten on. Woody was a Munchkin in the other musical version waaay back, and Woody still has a soft spot in his heart for Munchkins even if they wear funky clothes and talk funny.

The Woodyettes found their friends during the chorus appearances (Munchkins and Poppies. Oy.), but immersed themselves in the story right away. They both got a kick out of the Wicked Witch of the West, who is really a caricature in this story and much more funny than scary. Jelly had fun watching the Scarecrow. Doodle was more interested in having spotted her friend in the chorus, but watched the show intently nonetheless. Generally perched on my knee for visibility. (No stadium seating in a smallish community forum, y'know.) Mrs. Woody has that wonderful feminine ability to enjoy the show not so much on its merits, but on the earnest efforts of the kids involved.

Woody has a different problem. Having been an actor in community theater for (nearly) forty years now, I can't just sit back and immerse myself in a story. I watch the actors. Even among kids I'm looking for the stand-outs, probably because I was considered one myself. I spotted a few "keep yer eyes on this one" kids in this show that really seem to have a flair for stage work. I hope they pursue it. Chief among them was one thirteenish girl who appeared as one of the "Yellow Brick Road" dancers. These were six girls of varying age who had better-than-average dance skills. This particular girl, though, was not only a good dancer, but had her stage game on. She kept a dazzling smile on her face, and her moves were designed to project the intent of the choreography. Mrs. Woody spotted her as well, and we both agreed that this kid could go far.

Another firecracker was a smallish boy — second or third grade, perhaps — who was cast as the Funky Monkey. This kid came out with some hip-hop moves that were downright impressive, and he was clearly an audience favorite. Being so young his delivery of lines was nowhere near as impressive as his moves, but, hey, the kid is only maybe six or seven years old. Give him time. He has stage presence.

Woody also sympathizes with community productions because there are always things that don't work well. The sets were solid in this show, and the colors reflected the still-psychodelic look of the 70's pretty well. There were, unfortunately, miking problems, particularly for the Tin Man. The Lion had some wardrobe problems, and spent most of the show trying to keep his mane tucked up under his chin so no one would see his neck.

Still, it's fun to watch a bunch of small kids shuffle onto the stage, go through a few simple steps, and wave surreptitiously at Mom and Dad in the audience. It reminds Woody that all the world is, indeed, a stage. If we are merely players, may we all have as much fun as these kids did last night.

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