KPBS AIRDATE: JANUARY 15, 1997
When “The Wiz,” an all-black rock musical about The Wizard of Oz, opened on Broadway in 1975, it took on an enormous challenge: walking in the shadow of the beloved screen musical of 1939. A different, but equally enormous challenge confronted the Umoja Theatre Company. “The Wiz” is a huge and elaborate undertaking, especially for a small, new group with only two prior productions under its belt.
The stage of the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre is crowded with a cast of more than two dozen, diverse in age, size and ethnicity, true to the company’s mission. Umoja is the Swahili word for ‘unity,’ and the intention is to promote oneness through the arts.
All the intentions here are good. The cast is energetic and enthusiastic; the costumes are varied and inventive. The onstage 6-piece band is skillful, and the choreography, if not inspired, is cute and sometimes clever. There is, however, a major problem of uneven talent. There are some very good singers and dancers. But there are also lots of, well, extras. And this show requires a bit more acting ability than either of last year’s presentations: “Ain’t Misbehavin’” or “Fame.” There isn’t a character on the stage who really seems to have a character. There’s an awful lot of screaming and posing, a lot of hand-miked singing directly to the audience, but there isn’t any believable interaction or relationship.
The performances are over the top, instead of over the rainbow. Plus, there were noticeable technical difficulties, both with lighting and sound. Some light cues made no sense, or were off-target. The amplification was inconsistent and often distorted. Dorothy was body-miked way too loud, and her cohorts couldn’t be heard. Full-cast chorus numbers were drowned out by the band. The scattered mentions of Logan Heights or Highway 163, and the fleeting video of the fearless foursome “Easing on Down” a few San Diego roads, didn’t really serve to make the piece locally relevant.
Neither was it, as promised, a really “hip, funkdafied” version of the original. Even the storyline was muddied. Many of the dance numbers were poorly motivated and it was not at all clear exactly how the quartet actually offed the Wicked Witch of the West. And though the Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow were aptly outfitted, Dorothy was very unflatteringly attired. But she sure could sing.
Tonya Jackson is at her best stationary and center stage, belting out a ballad with her powerhouse of a voice. Mimi Francis, who plays Evillene, the Wicked Witch, can really sing the blues. And Scarecrow Raul Cardona sure is an extremely agile dance-man with an amazingly winning smile.
Director Obaloc Phillips, who doubles as the outrageously fey and glitzy Wiz, could tighten the reins quite a bit: more controlled performances, more consistent talent, more acting acumen. This is not an ensemble production; it’s a collection of individual performances. The energy of this group needs to be effectively harnessed, so it can radiate the power of its potential.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.