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'The Wiz' Struggles Down the Road in Leverett Old Library

The Wiz by William F. Brown and CharlesSmalls directed by Joshua Cohen produced by Zoe Cohen at Leverett Old Library Through May 4


Since 1939, when Judy Garland first introduced millions of Americans to the wonders of Technicolor, The Wizard of Oz has been an important part of American culture. Uproot the entire story, drop it into the African-American world of the 1970's, and Frank Baum's classic childrens' story becomes "The Wiz," a hip melange of pop culture and fairy tales. This spring's performance shows off a number of excellent and excited performers, but in many ways fails to pull off this complicated and challenging musical.

The production begins extremely slowly, and the first few scenes are not played with enough energy to sustain themselves or to pull the audience into what could be an exciting and driven show. Although Aunt Em's (Laurie Sheflin) musical number is nicely sung, the cast lacks spirit until the entrance of Addaperle (Kimberly Aboltin), one of the two good witches. Aboltin, with Urban Outfitters bag in tow, fully exploits the hilarious nature of Addaperle's character, bringing to it some of her own very funny mannerisms. With the down-beat of the next song, "Ease on Down the Road," the show finally begins to move forward.

The role of Dorothy, played by Charmaine Smith, is sung beautifully and performed in an unusual but convincing manner. Instead of the traditional interpretation of Dorothy as a child who is actively seeking her way home, Smith plays a wide-eyed, younger Dorothy who is pulled around the land of Oz by her new-found friends. As such, these friends, the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion, become much more important to the action and motion of the plot.

Both the Scarecrow (Gregory David) and the Tinman (Brad Waskewich) are well played, and Waskewich, through shrugs and gestures, is especially good at including the audience in the action on stage. Bashir Salahuddin's Lion is one of the show's strongest characters and, unlike David and Waskewich, Salahuddin sings as impressively as he acts. Despite this strong cast, the scenes of dialogue throughout the first act are beset by frequent problems with timing. The flow of the dialogue is constantly interrupted by small pauses which prevent the plot from progressing smoothly. Fortunately, the many musical numbers are carried along by the surprisingly strong chorus, most notably the three "pit singers" who first appear during the overture.

The story is told through scenes of song and dialogue, interrupted by dances of various lengths. Although many of the dancers themselves are superb and a few of the dances, such as "Tornado"--in which the storm is portrayed by three pirouetting dancers, who bring Dorothy into their rhythmic pattern when she is sucked into the tempest--are original and engaging, much of the choreography eventually becomes dry and is not capable of sustaining energy between the scenes of dialogue. During the first act the disturbance created by the constant dance numbers severely breaks up and slows down the action.

Towards the end of the act the title character makes his first appearance. Chip Greenridge is simply marvelous as The Wiz, and is easily able to reconcile his character's initial earthshaking impressions with the wilted, humiliated demeanor that follows his exposure as a fraud. Greenridge also possesses an extremely powerful voice, but even he is no match for the pit orchestra. One of

"The Wiz's" most salient (and unfortunately difficult to solve) problems is that the orchestra is simply too loud. Although they suffer from intonation problems, the players are solid and and the sound is balanced within the ensemble; however, the group overpowers the vocalists in almost every musical number. Sadly, in a room as acoustically imperfect as the Leverett Old Library it is close to impossible for even a small pit to avoid drowning out unamplified singers.

Fortunately, the second act comes off far better than the first. Although problems with singing and balance continue throughout the show, the actors are much more enthusiastic and, with the help of several exciting songs, move the plot convincingly along. After several misadventures with the Wicked Witch Evillene (Liz Vladeck), Addaperle's more refined sister Glinda (Tracy Erickson) arrives and, in a delightful scene and song, brings the musical to its happy ending.

"The Wiz" is not an easy show to produce, and is probably a little too ambitious for this cast in this venue. However, if you can make it past the first act you just might be charmed by the cast's enthusiasm, and you will almost certainly leave with a fun song caught in your ear.

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