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Pleasure in performance of American Stage’s ‘The Wiz’


Published:   |   Updated: April 15, 2014 at 12:20 AM

It’s a familiar story with unfamiliar music.

Most of us have been down that yellow brick road more than once. And it is the 1939 Judy Garland as Dorothy singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” trip that is an iconic part of pop culture history.

The “Wizard of Oz” movie casts a large shadow over “The Wiz,” the 1970s Broadway musical that re-imagined Frank L. Baum’s Oz stories with a funk, soul and blues beat and an all-black cast. Think “Ease on Down the Road” instead of “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”

If you can push the original film out of memory, then there is much to like about the American Stage in The Park production of “The Wiz” which opened Friday at Demens Landing Park in downtown St. Petersburg.

The singing and dancing performances are spot-on entertaining. Whitney Drake, a local theater veteran who has been performing on cruise ships for seven years, is a spirited, upbeat Dorothy. There’s no “Over the Rainbow” but Drake has her moments with “Soon As I Get Home” and the moving closer, “Home.”

Sarasota-based singer/actor Sharon E. Scott, whose theater credits include numerous off Broadway productions, makes for a soulful Aunt Em (“The Feeling We Once Had”) and is solid as the good witch Glinda. But Scott is most fun to watch when she cuts loose as the wicked witch Evilene on “Don’t Give Me No Bad News.”

 

Bringing a flare for comedy, as well as some good dance moves, to their roles are Sara DelBeato as Lion, Torrey Thomas as Scarecrow; Chris Walker as Tin Man; Darryl Reuben Hall as The Wizard; and Allyson Tolbert as the flighty witch Addeperle.

“The Wiz” was a Tony-winning Broadway hit in the 1970s. But the 1978 film version was a commercial and critical failure.

American Stage Director Hartley went back to the original play for inspiration, keeping the story light, inspiring and funny. Instead of an all-black cast, this “Wiz” has a multiracial and multi-ethnic cast and the inclusive message “believe in yourself.”

A small ensemble of supporting cast members play munchkins, flying monkeys, Emerald City residents and even the singing/dancing yellow brick road (cleverly done here). It all takes place on an impressive two-story set with an impressionist motif themed around “eyes.”

Some may find this rooted too much in the 1970s and some may find that the story lacks a punch because it’s all too familiar. The pleasure is in the performance.

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