"Ease on Down the Road," the courageous and determined Brooklyn girl Dorothy sings to the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion in this classic musical variation on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but the journey is anything but easy. As directed and choreographed by Keith Lee Grant for Harlem Repertory Theatre, this Wiz is characterized by synchronized dance routines, a very tricky doubling scene, and the juxtaposition between the reality of life in Dorothy's rough neighborhood and her uncompromising love for the family whom she's inadvertedly left behind there. It begins with a narrative dance piece which is both energetic and clearly told. At school, Dorothy escapes to elsewhere by covertly reading a book at her desk, while her teacher is distracted by the behaviour of more extroverted, less appreciative students. Outside, she walks into an ambush by an aggressive group of kids, and is saved only by the intervention of a kind but tough elderly woman, a double of the good witch Addaperle, whom she will soon encounter as soon as a Christmas Eve blizzard whisks her away to the Land of Oz. Will she find the self-determination and self-confidence to get herself and her newfound friends Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion to the Wiz, who will solve all their problems, allegedly? Will she find the courage to go home, despite the temptations of the Emerald City?
The Wiz was performed in New York a short while ago by a different company, and many theatregoers will also remember the iconic performances of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Lena Horne in the film version. Still, Harlem Rep offers a creative interpretation that's worth seeing even if you've memorized all the songs. The yellow brick road runs through the audience, making us all citizens of the weird otherworld of Oz. The dancers representing the snow and wind, who carry Dorothy off to Oz, are entrancing, especially the young man whose duet with her dominates that number. Jimmie Mike, a veteran of the national tour of Miss Saigon, plays the Lion (early in the show) and The Wiz later with tons of charisma and a sharp satire of both egotistical stars and religious leaders who promise more than they can deliver. City College theatre student and Brooklyn High School of the Arts graduate Danyel K. Fulton as Dorothy is a brilliant young performer who makes Dorothy a convincing modern teenager without ever being precious or losing the fairytale sensibility of the piece. Both can sing: Fulton is a fantastic, strong, confident belter. It is clear why both were nominated for AUDELCO Awards for their previous performances at Harlem Rep.
This is why it's disappointing that when The Wiz first appears, Mike is replaced as the Lion by a second, uncredited performer, whose performance is less specific and compelling (and is also quite a bit shorter than Mike, and whose facial hair, noticeably unlike his, is painted on.) It would have really been better for one actor to play the Lion all the way through, unless doubling within roles is used more consistently across the cast, and for a good thematic reason.
Less strong than Mike and Fulton is Roderick Warner's Tin Man, who wasn't always audible over the pit band and didn't move as if he had mechanical joints. The Scarecrow (Eric Myles) is a winsome, exuberant guy whose friendship with Dorothy tugs at the audience to beg her to stay in Oz. Doubling as good and evil witches, Alexandra Bernard shows versatility, but her most memorable moment is her beautiful, full-voiced solo as Auntie Em, "The Feeling We Once Had."
Natalya Peguero's costume design and Kaitlyn Mulligan's set are very hit-or-miss. The Scarecrow's straw mohawk is a great idea, as is putting bad witch Evillene in a business suit and making her lair the boardroom of AIG ("no bad news!" Evillene shrieks at her winged goons.) Less inspired is a plastic lion nose that looks like a store-bought Halloween costume and large painted flats reminiscent of school plays.
All but the youngest spectators will know how the story of The Wiz turns out, but Harlem Rep's production emphasises the reason why this fairy tale matters. Written in the nineteenth-century midwest by Lyman Frank Baum, son-in-law of an early American feminist and Seneca Falls signatory Matilda Jocelyn Gage, the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz shows an American girl finding courage and principles without losing sight of home, family, and love. As updated in 1975 by Charlie Small (music and lyrics) and William F. Brown (book) to an African-American, urban 1970s context, with Dorothy a Harlem schoolteacher, The Wiz gains new resonance. It is also far truer to Baum's intentions - and his plot - than the saccharine 1939 film version. Here, Dorothy demonstrates the scepticism of fatalist dominant narratives that allows her to overcome Oz's absurdities. When the Tin Man explains - as in Baum's book but not the film - that he turned into a tin man because his axe kept chopping off parts of his body, which he replaced with machines, Dorothy opines that he should have gotten rid of the faulty axe.
When the Gatekeeper of the Emerald City won't let the foursome in the front door to see the Wiz, Oz appears to have its own civil rights issues to overcome, sadly not dissimilar from those which President Obama has recently tried to smooth over with beers in the White House back yard. So head to Harlem Rep for a wonderful escape from America - and a good hard glance, through the looking glass, back home.