The Mandell Weiss Theatre has been so re-created, one would think the Good Witch of the East had a hand in the transformation.
Tony Award-winning artistic director Des McAnuff and set designer Robert Brill started their re-imagining of Oz by removing the first few rows of seats, adding seating areas right on the stage and creating a yellow brick road that runs around the theater and through the audience. Creating somewhat of a theater-in-the-round effect, the audience is in the middle of the musical.
The first musical version of “Oz” hit the Broadway stage in 1902. It became a classic film in 1939 and then returned to the stage in 1974 for a long run. The La Jolla Playhouse team has created an exciting, urbanized version of this musical that features mostly African American players.
The storyline, with a book by William Brown, has not changed. A tornado takes Dorothy (Nikki James) and her dog Toto (Albert Blaise Cattafi) to a far-away place inhabited by witches, munchkins, monkeys and three particularly odd fellows: aScarecrow (Rashad Naylor), the Tinman (Michael Benjamin Washington) and the Cowardly Lion (Tituss Burgess). Addaperle (Heather Lee), the Good Witch, sends Dorothy and Toto off to the see the Wizard of Oz (David Alan Grier), who she assures will grant their wish to return to Kansas.
Only the energizing music by the split-apart orchestras and the marvelous voices of the cast members can draw your eye away from the apparatus above the audience’s heads. Walkways, stairs, video screens, crystal balls and lights galore adorn the upper part of the theater making for easy entrances and exits for the fast-moving cast.
From beginning to end, “The Wiz” dazzles. Costumes by Paul Tazewell look like something from the Paris runaway. The colors are vibrant and cleverly fit each character.
When the players parade through the audience on the yellow brick road, excitement rises to a new level. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo, who won the Tony award for “Jersey Boys,” had a formidable task in creating the fast-paced dance numbers, but every step is thrilling. The acts that rise from center stage and include the munchkins, monkeys and highly inventive Kalidahs, evoke images of shows like Cirque du Soleil.
Howard Brinkley, Tony Award-winner for “Jersey Boys,” has designed, as McAnuff puts it, phantasmagorical lighting effects that enhance the show to the fullest.
In some musicals where the production is so grandiose, it’s easy for the actors to become backdrops. That never happens in “The Wiz.” James is marvelous as Dorothy. She exudes the innocence required for the role and her voice is first-rate.
Toto, who is a real dog for only moments before being replaced by a human, seems to be a favorite of the show. Having performed with The Joffrey Ballet among others, Cattafi has all the right moves for a dog and garners many laughs. Naylor, Washington and Burgess also serve their parts well in both dancing abilities and singing.
The witches, good and bad, are equally effective in diverse ways. Addaperle is extremely quirky and confesses she has attention deficit disorder. Lee adds just the right nuances to keep her lighthearted and funny. Tony-award nominee Pettiford (“Fosse”), familiar to some from the hit television show “Half & Half,” adds a hearty layer to the show with her polished voice. Evillene, the Wicked Witch, is portrayed with exuberant gusto by E. Faye Butler and draws as many laughs with her loud roar and mean demeanor as does her funny counterpart.
“The Wiz” is entertaining every single minute, and many young children in the audience enjoyed it as well.
“Its universal themes - leaving home, preparing for the responsibilities of adulthood and realizing that the virtues one longs for are already in our possession - remain dilemmas in each of our contemporary lives,” McAnuff said. “Today, more than ever, it is important to believe in yourself.”
“The Wiz” runs now through Nov. 26. Call (858) 550-1010 for tickets.