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A whiz of a 'Wiz' if ever a wiz there was

One thing is clear from the moment you hit the door: you're not in Kansas anymore. This show has too much funk for there to be any doubt.

Live Arts' production of "The Wiz," the musical version of L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," makes high energy and lively beat its top priorities. The acting is a little thin, but that's not the point. Creativity and spunk dominate in the show, pushing us to use our imaginations and rethink our assumptions about myth, struggle and self-discovery.

Director Clinton Johnson leads a cast of 18 in ambitiously undertaking the staging of the controversial 1975 Tony award-winning musical by William F. Brown and Charlie Smalls. "The Wiz" turns "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" into a sort of parable of the African-American experience and uses it as a vehicle for talking about black identity. All actors in the production are black.

The idea of grafting "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" onto a racially focused framework is shrewd. Dorothy has to react to the challenge of finding herself transplanted, against her will, to a foreign land. As Johnson says in his director's notes, "All she knows is that she wants to get home. After arduous trials, our heroine learns that through a combination of intelligence, heart and courage, she has had the power to create home inside her all along."

By using a story that most of us already know by heart, "The Wiz" frees itself up to talk about race in pointed ways. But it also creates significant obstacles for itself. Especially in a place like Charlottesville, it faces the danger of narrow relevance in performing for a mostly white audience. But the show negotiates this challenge well. The act of performance, like nearly all artistic gestures, is an act of inclusion. "The Wiz" turns "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" into a black American story, yes. But more accurately, it recasts Baum's story as simply a different kind of generally American story. I can't think of an American sub-group that hasn't had to confront displacement and struggle at some point in its history.

The Live Arts production could confront these issues more directly if it placed more emphasis on acting. The casting seems to have been done based on enthusiasm and singing ability, not on acting skill. But this decision accentuates the importance of the musical genre to the show's value.

I might have been bored senseless if "The Wiz" was a non-musical play. Plain racial allegory tends to make me feel like I'm being hit over the head with a blunt object. The musical medium allows the show to make its point subtly and still have fun.

Curtain Call

"The Wiz"
Live Arts
Now through Mar. 30

Aunt Em (Crystal Hall) kicks off the show with "The Feeling We Once Had," probably the most beautiful solo in the whole show, although Tin Man (James Muhammad) gives her a run for her money with his "Slide Some Oil to Me."

Dorothy (Stacie Greenwell), Scarecrow (Richelle Claiborne), Tin Man and Lion (Lewis O. Warren, Jr.) give us the most memorable song of the show, "Ease On Down the Road," several times. Costume designer Sarah Owen and choreographer Edna-Jakki Miller shine in this piece: the yellow brick road consists of four dancing members of the ensemble cast, dressed in yellow raingear and matching construction hardhats. It's fantastically clever.

Indeed, creativity, imagination and energy are the show's selling points. The costumes are elaborate, colorful, and intelligently chosen. Musical directors Jamal Millner and Doug Wannamaker lead a talented live band, and the singing (under vocal director Kenneth A. Coles) is, except for a few moments, well-done.

All of these artistic elements keep us entertained, of course. But more importantly, they connect back to the issues that the acting doesn't quite get across. "The Wiz" is not just a study of race or of the parallels between black Americans' struggle and the tribulations of self-discovery that any individual endures. It is also a testament to the power that music has to guide that journey - to make it more bearable and, ultimately, to help us find ourselves.


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