J*Company goes retro with 'The Wiz' musical in La Jolla

Beloved musical 'The Wiz' takes the stage Jan. 13-29, 2017 at Jewish Community Center, La Jolla

The signature number in the Tony Award-winning musical "The Wiz" is, of course, "Ease On Down the Road." But if the Scarecrow in J*Company Youth Theatre's upcoming production is any indication, maybe the tune should be "Truckin' ".

"My character is what you'd call a dead-head type," said 14-year-old Brendan Dallaire, who likens his incarnation of the Scarecrow to the Grateful Dead's late, great Jerry Garcia. This is not the only nod to the '60s, either. The Cowardly Lion is costumed like a Vietnam War-era Army deserter, the Good Witch of the North like a Janis Joplin type, and the Munchkins, according to J* Company Artistic Director Joey Landwehr, like "free-love flower children."

Why the '60s for a retelling of a Broadway show from 1975? (It was followed by a successful film in 1978 and an NBC live-TV event in 2015.) "The '60s was such a renaissance in the world in so many aspects," explained Landwehr, who is directing a cast of 88 at the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture's Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center theater. "It was special. A total change in the way we think and function. "With everything that's going on now, it's a good time to remember those times. It reaches down to the core of us."

Among that sprawling cast, which is both multi-racial and multi-religious, is 17-year-old Talia Israel, who is playing the lead role of Dorothy. (Stephanie Mills starred in the original Broadway production of the musical by Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown, with Diana Ross memorably out front in the movie, and Shanice Williams the star in the NBC telecast.) "Getting the opportunity to play this part in such a different way is exciting," said Israel, who three years ago portrayed Aunt Em in J*Company's "The Wizard of Oz." "She (the character of Dorothy) is very confident, ready to take on the world."

Conversely, 15-year-old Riley Hull's Tin Man is, he says, "confident, but he doesn't want the attention." With the costume he's wearing, he's bound to get some: "I'm not in oil cans," Hull said. "I look like I'm pieced together out of traffic signs."

Those costumes, incidentally, were created for this production of "The Wiz" by Landwehr and Lisa Forrest. Choreography is by J*Company's prodigious Michael Mizerany. A five-piece band will provide the music.

Besides giving this take on "The Wiz" its theme, the '60s shadings are "a history lesson for the kids," said Landwehr of a time not only of turbulent change but one when differences were either challenged or celebrated. But ask both Landwehr and his stars about the show's message and they agree: It's acceptance.

"When you break us all down into the smallest of particles," said Landwehr, "we're all the same."

IF YOU GO: "The Wiz" will be presented by J*Company Youth Theatre, Jan. 13-29, 2017 in the Garfield Theatre at Jewish Community Center, 4126 Executive Drive. Tickets $19. (858) 362-1348. jcompanysd.org

Copyright © 2019, © 2019, The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. All rights reserved.