Jamelia Payne

Jamelia Payne and castmembers in The Wiz at the Tacoma Musical Playhouse. Photo by Kat Dollarhide.

Dorothy, a Kansas farm girl, caught up in a mysterious twister, lands in Oz and immediately wants to go home. After a lot of adventures, she does.  Yup, I have just covered the essential plot of L. Frank Baum’s timeless children’s classic The Wizard of Oz. Most of us also know, and have seen, repeatedly, the 1939 MGM film musical version with Judy Garland and an enduring Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg score.

But in 1974, playwright William F. Brown and composer/lyricist Charlie Smalls created a hip, Afrocentric Broadway musical of it. If ever oh ever a Wiz there was, it was The Wiz, which managed a 4 year Broadway run, has seen an unsuccessful film version, as well as a critically acclaimed and highly rated recent NBC live television  production. Tacoma Musical Playhouse is doing the original Broadway script and score in a current production that has its heart in the right place, the courage of its convictions, but not always the brains to trust the material and not cheapen it.

A lot of what director/co-choreographer Jon Douglas Rake gets right is in some key casting. Lovely Alexandria Henderson’s Dorothy is not the young child that Baum created, or the pent-up spinster essayed by Diana Ross, but a young woman in perhaps her late teens, though still a small town farm girl swept up into a fairytale scenario. Henderson embodies her Dorothy with strength, sass, and self-reliance. She softens as she meets her three fellow travelers, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. When it is finally time to head back home to Kansas, Henderson socks it out of the ballpark with the score’s most resonating song Home,  which tells us that though she has found a second home in Oz, her heart needs to be back with her Uncle Henry and her Aunt Em.

The chemistry Henderson needs to have with her 3 companions is essential. Luckily her cast mates are imbued with the right qualities. I especially liked Jimmy Shields’ terrific and tender-hearted moves as the Tin Man. Charles Simmons and Matthew De La Cruz also charmed  as the Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, especially De La Cruz alongside Henderson for Be A Lion. Marion Read’s Aunt Em embodied the loving soul of the strict but caring maternal figure in Dorothy’s life and started the show beautifully with The Feeling We Once Had.

Dorothy’s nemesis, Evillene the Wicked Witch of the West, has a truncated presence in this version, but her 15 minutes to shine include the show’s bring down the house number Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News. In the hands of a force of nature performer named Jamelia Payne, no one would dare do so. Payne deserves a show built around her own big voice and comic chops. Sheila Blackwell and Roshawn Johnson star as the other two Oz witches. Blackwell is appropriately dotty but slow to pick up cues and constantly upstaging her own laugh lines, while Johnson’s Glinda seems a bit too young, though packing a strong voice on her vocals.

DuWayne Andrews is adequate but not nearly showman enough in the title role. It’s a real miscalculation to hide him back behind the Oz Monster after we have already seen him in So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard.

Jeffrey Stvrtecky’s musical direction of the orchestra was quite exemplary. Rake and Shields co-choreographed the production to mixed effect, as certain numbers inspired while others seemed to have been kind of paint by number. Scenic design by Bruce Haasl was polished and storybook swell, and lighting designer John Chenault effectively imbued the proceedings serendipitously.

This production of The Wiz could have benefitted from some swifter pacing, and a reference to the Academy Award winning song-score is an in-joke mistake that should be deleted. But my overall takeaway is that this show is a too seldom produced small gem of its era, and the leads and ensemble members had enough heart and energy to transport us back to Oz for a few hours.

The Wiz performs through June 12 at Tacoma Musical Playhouse at The Narrows Theatre, 7116 Sixth Ave., Tacoma. For tickets and more go to tmp.org.