Lili-Anne Brown’s compact, talent-packed staging of the 1975 musical updating of The Wizard of Oz has been long awaited; originally, she was to direct The Wiz as a coproduction of the now-defunct Bailiwick Chicago, where she was artistic director, and American Theater Company, but that spring 2016 production got scuttled by NBC’s live-broadcast television version and an announced Broadway transfer that hasn’t materialized. Regardless, it’s not until now and via Kokandy, the outstanding young non-Equity company specializing in musicals, that Brown’s vision has finally gotten over the rainbow.
The result, cramming a cast of 19 and an 8-piece band onstage in one of Theater Wit’s 99-seat spaces, is infectiously joyful; you can feel the director and cast’s love for this material radiating from the stage. (It’s not hard to imagine many of these actors and musicians as kids wearing out VHS copies of the 1978 film adaptation with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, as Brown cops to doing herself in a director’s note.) The whole ensemble is so ace, it’s hardly possible to single anyone out—but we’ll mention Sydney Charles, on whose winning portrayal of Dorothy the whole endeavor turns, and the ultra-endearing Scarecrow embodied by Gilbert Domally, who it’s increasingly clear in every performance is a magnetic star in the making.
If anything, Kokandy’s production is so solid at such an intimate scale that it lets you see the shortcomings of the show itself, which I’d attribute to William F. Brown’s rushed book. Charlie Smalls’s R&B-tinged collection of songs is still an all-time great in terms of marrying pop idioms with Broadway, and music director James Morehead and company light them up here. But I’d forgotten how little time William F. Brown allows us to spend with each of these characters. Just because The Wiz was drawn from one of the best-known stories of the 20th century doesn’t mean we should be in such a hurry to ease on down the road—not when the reconception is so good.
Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit. Book by William F. Brown. Music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls. Directed by Lili-Anne Brown. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.