Chicago Theatre Review
Ease On Down the Road
The Wiz – Kokandy Productions
Can it actually be more than 40 years since Dorothy and her friends first eased on down the yellow brick road for a private audience with the Wiz? It’s certainly been a while since any area theatre mounted a local production, but Kokandy Productions has creatively risen to the occasion. Directed by Lili-Anne Brown, with respect and a fondness for the original L. Frank Baum story, she’s given the musical a brand new spin and made it feel fresh and unique. Breon Arzell has choreographed this production with brilliance and innovative, original movement that combines athletic hip hop moves with some throwback to the club dances of the 70’s.
In this production, although Dorothy continually claims to be from Kansas, the prologue appears to be set on the streets of the inner city, perhaps even Chicago’s South Loop. In fact, the entire production has the gritty look and feel of urban life. Just before a wild, anthropomorphic cyclone carries the little girl off to Munchkin Land, the little girl gets some love and sagely advice from her surrogate parent, Aunt Em (played with brusque affection by Nicole Michelle Haskins). After reminding Dorothy of “The Feeling We Once Had,” the real fun begins.
A pretty, wide-eyed and mega-talented young actress named Sydney Charles, seen in such fine area productions as “Dessa Rose,” “The Color Purple” and “Ragtime,” portrays a more feisty and determined Dorothy than Judy Garland’s bashful, little farm girl. Ms. Charles continually displays her musical and choreographic talent, while journeying through a foreign land and caring for the needs of her newfound friends. She’s initially directed by a good witch named Addaperle, played with humor by Angela Alise, to seek out the help of the all-powerful Wiz, in Emerald City. But first, the kindly witch gives Dorothy a protective kiss and a pair of magical silver slippers, worn by the now-deceased Wicked Witch of the East. They’re promised to help her as she travels through the land.
On her way Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, played by Gilbert Domally. He’s a talented triple-threat who’s already left his mark in several Chicago productions (“Next to Normal,” “Dreamgirls,” “Hairspray”). Domally’s absolutely adorable and extremely charming, moving around the tiny stage as if made out of rubber. He tells Dorothy that he wants to have a brain, while offering his musical backstory, “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday;” then he and Ms. Charles begin their musical quest, easing on down the yellow brick road.
Soon they encounter the handsome Steven Perkins, as the Tin Man. This gifted musical actor has garnered critical attention in local productions with The Hypocrites, Theo Ubique, the Goodman and even Second City. The poor, heartless silver giant has rusted in place while chopping wood, just as an unexpected thunderstorm passed through. However, Steven belts out to his new friends to “Slide Some Oil to Me,” in order to restore his mobility. Later, Mr. Perkins beautifully croons a plaintive, “What Would I Do If I Could Feel,” as he imagines how having a heart would change his life.
It isn’t long before the three friends encounter the Cowardly Lion, played with bravado and gleeful cleverness by Chuckie Benson. This actor has dazzled audiences with his portrayals of Tom Collins in “Rent,” Coalhouse Walker in “Ragtime” and Jim in “Big River.” He attempts to musically intimidate the group, singing “I’m a Mean Ole Lion;” but later, in the the throne room of the Wiz (played with androgynous brilliance by Frederick Harris), the Lion breaks down and confesses that he’s really just a scaredy cat. Benson ends Act I by joining Dorothy in a stirring anthem about being brave and living up to one’s potential, called “Be a Lion.”
Act II brings the three friends, now all vying for Dorothy’s attention, to the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West. Evillene, also played with rotten relish, by Nicole Michelle Haskins, warns everyone within earshot, “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.” We all know what a washout that message will bring to this villain, who only wants Dorothy’s glittery, silver kicks for herself. Dorothy and her friends accomplish what they set out to do for the Wiz and return to discover that he’s just a humbug. However, he does pass off some cheap trinkets as substitutes for a brain, a heart and some courage, making everyone happy, except Dorothy. When a botched balloon launch fails to return the girl back to Kansas, Dorothy becomes reunited with Addaperle, as well as her beautiful, goodhearted sister Glinda, played with gentle authority by Anna Dauzvardis. She advises Dorothy to simply “Believe in Yourself,” and click her heels together three times in order to return to Aunt Em. Dorothy says her goodbyes and then ends her journey on a happy note, with Ms. Charles’ gorgeous rendition of “Home.”
This magnificent production, which brings Baum’s familiar, beloved story up close and personal. It’s adapted by William F. Brown and scored by Charlie Smalls, and is accompanied here by Jimmy Morehead’s fine musical direction and his eight-piece band. Perched high above all the action, they look down upon the talented ensemble of actors, Virginia Varland’s colorful and cleverly imaginative costumes and a flexible setting, designed with urban appeal by Arnel Sanciano, that makes the most of the intimate Theater Wit space.
Combining wit, wisdom and wonderment, with an infectious score that still sounds fresh and contemporary this beloved story from the early 1900’s remains as much fun as ever. Its score, filled with toe-tapping, infectious tunes that audiences will be humming for days to come, combines soft rock, gospel, soul and R&B to create an original soundtrack of the city. Lili-Anne Brown’s affectionate, original vision of this tale of self-discovery is as delightful and hilarious as when it first hit Broadway in 1975, winning seven Tony Awards. A film version, a Broadway revival and even a recent televised production can’t diminish the splendor of the piece and the glory and wonder of this terrific cast. Just Ease on Down the Road and enjoy a couple entertaining hours with a gutsy little girl, her fabulous friends and a bunch of flying funky monkeys and Winter will be all but forgotten.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March March 5-April 16 by Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the theater box office, by calling them at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.kokandyproductions.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.