The Wiz Live! (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Wiz Live! (2015)

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Dorothy misses her parents and old life now that she lives with her Aunt Em.  When a violent storm picks Dorothy up from her farm and deposits her in the magical land of Oz, she takes steps to become the woman she felt she couldn't be back on the farm.  The Wiz Live! is directed by Kenny Leon and Matthew Diamond, written by Harvey Fierstein, and stars an ensemble cast led by Shanice Williams.

Best of friends forevah

"...and what's wrong with being a woman?"

Not a damn thing Dorothy.

Last year we got the spotty, but entertaining, Peter Pan Live! which occasionally dazzled with the production design and filming but fell flat when it came to the lead performance.  With The Wiz Live! there's none of the stunt casting which took down last year's effort (even though I am one of the people who will defend Christopher Walken's bizarre work).  The Wiz Live! wouldn't have touched me as deeply if it was just due to the cast.  Instead directors Kenny Leon and Matthew Diamond pay tribute to decades of black culture in the wardrobe and performances while tweaking bits of the original story to make it resonate more "on stage".

This means remembering the near-perfect childlike grace Michael Jackson once brought to the part of Scarecrow way back when Sidney Lumet filmed The Wiz with Diana Ross.  It means remembering the eclectic experimentation of both music and fashion black entertainers brought forward in the '70s and '80s.  But what The Wiz Live! adds is a subtle reminder that the heartland of America wasn't built just by white farm hands, but the black citizens who built it up back before they had the right to stage such lavish productions like this.

If The Wiz Live!'s sole contribution was the Emerald City sequence it would still go down as one of the greatest things to happen in 2015.

If The Wiz Live!'s sole contribution was the Emerald City sequence it would still go down as one of the greatest things to happen in 2015.

The evolution of subservience to strength is well-served in Shanice Williams' fantastic performance as Dorothy.  Allison Williams was a poor fit for Peter Pan last year as she exaggerated all of his movements to the point where we weren't watching the child who never grew up but an adult performer who knew how to harness their energy to project excitement.  Williams, in a steep contrast, taps into Dorothy's growth in her timid steps and remarkable variation in singing tone.  Just listen to her as she goes through her opening numbers as her timbre rises and falls, singing some passages with renewed strength before allowing her voice to fade away, and shirking in the presence of her fellow performers.  She goes from this timid thing to someone willing and able to embrace the center stage and bellow out her numbers with newly-found vigor in the closing acts.

Her work highlights one aspect of everyone's performance which makes The Wiz Live! such a success.  They aren't all singing to the tip-top of their capabilities from the first frame on.  Elijah Kelley, as the Scarecrow, was my favorite of the central quartet because of how he allowed both body and voice to meander in a way befitting his lack of strengths as a collection of straw shaped into a man.  But MVP goes to Queen Latifah, not because of her spectacular costume (more on that in a moment), but because when I first heard her sing as The Wiz she sounded like a whisper of herself.  It's been a long time since I heard her belt so I hoped her "When You're Good To Mama" heights weren't kaput and as she helped belt out one of the final numbers it was because The Wiz was proudly exposed as herself for the first in a long time.

All the performers are backed with excellent costume work which enhances the routines wonderfully.  When Dorothy first arrives in Oz she's greeted by the inhabitants who are wearing garbs which are part slinky and part Chinese lantern.  The slightest motion of the dancers causes ripples throughout the texture of the costumes and keep the enthusiastic energy of the population within view as they shake with each happy exclamation.  When we meet the crows taunting poor Scarecrow a bit afterward their leather jackets and broad-shouldered line of feathers recalls the zoot suits of the early 20th century.  Even the little costuming touches made me happy, from Ne-Yo's adorable tipped hat as Tin Man and the dreadlocks of David Alan Grier's Cowardly Lion.

Williams and Uzo Aduba both resonate beautifully in The Wiz Live!

Shanice Williams and Uzo Aduba both resonate beautifully in The Wiz Live!

Then, my god, the wonder of Emerald City.  If there's any segment in The Wiz Live! which deserves every bit of energetic pride it's when Common opens the gates and out floods an amalgam of many styles.  This is where afrofuturism meets Grace Jones meets RuPaul meets just a touch of Madonna as the denizens go vogue in a glittering display of art and carefully stylized dancing.  It's little wonder "Emerald City Fierce" is something which may become part of our cultural lexicon and if it inspires a new wave of outrageous going-out dress then all the better.  I had to back up the stream and watch it four more times because there isn't a single frame of the camera which doesn't have some amazing costuming or dance work going on.

What issues I take with The Wiz Live! are minor.  Mary J. Blige, both in her performance and limited screen-time, was a disappointment as the Wicked Witch.  Her forceful line deliveries were at odds with the cool confidence of the rest of the production and isn't helped by writer Harvey Fierstein limiting her presence.  She becomes less a threat to Dorothy and more an arbitrary obstacle Dorothy is told to overcome.

What little issue I took with that was forgotten by the time the magnificent Uzo Aduba descended from the heavens as the Glinda the Good Witch.  She is such a unique, nuanced, and beautiful performer and I relished her every second onstage.  I was left feeling that Leon, Diamond, Williams, and the rest of the production understood how we would not have American culture were it not for the black artists who came before.  The Wiz Live! is both a testament to their legacy and a powerful statement that the best is yet to come.

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Tail - The Wiz Life!The Wiz Live! (2015)

Directed by Kenny Leon and Matthew Diamond.
Screenplay written by Harvey Fierstein.
Starring Shanice Williams, Elijah Kelley, Ne-Yo, David Alan Grier, Uzo Aduba, Queen Latifah, and Mary J. Blige.

Posted by Andrew

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