It is probably impossible to calculate how many people have seen “The Wizard of Oz,” that eternally magical 1939 MGM film version of L. Frank Baum’s classic story. And it might well be nearly as difficult to figure out the total audience for the many incarnations of “The Wiz, ” that game-changing, exuberantly urbanized, all-black, Tony Award-winning 1975 Broadway hit with a book by William F. Brown, and soul, rock, disco and gospel-infused score by Charlie Smalls.
When: Through April 16
Where: Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Tickets: $33 – $38
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
What is known is that 11.5 million viewers reportedly tuned in to watch the big-budget, all-star 2015 television special, “The Wiz Live!” that aired live on NBC in December 2015. And beyond that, the show has not been produced by a local Chicago theater company for many years.
So, in a big, bold move, Kokandy Productions, the company now entering its fifth season (with a record of impressive of productions ranging from Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” to “Heathers: The Musical” and “Loving Repeating”), decided to gather a cast of 19 terrific personalities with serious chops, pair it with a sensational eight-piece band, and proceed to put its own funky spin on the show. In the process, director Lili-Anne Brown, choreographer Breon Arzell and music director Jimmy Morehead might just have devised a production closer to what it was meant to be from the start.
To begin with, we are definitely not in Kansas farm country anymore. As the sign posted on a graffiti-covered gray concrete wall of Arnel Sancianco’s set tells us, we are on the grounds of “Kansas Homes,” a Chicago public housing project complete with heavy fencing and a busted basketball hoop. And Auntie Em (Nicole Michelle Haskins, who later morphs into the wicked witch Evillene, and in both cases displays a rich, forceful voice) is hawking t-shirts and receiving little help from her dreamy, distracted niece, Dorothy (Sydney Charles), who has doubts about just how much her caretaker really cares about her. (Charles, who sings with feverish intensity, captures her character’s warmth and confusion — a big switch from the worldly, hard-edged roles she usually plays.)
And then comes the storm, and the elaborate life-altering “dream” that will carry Dorothy away (with only a brief mention of her otherwise forgotten dog, Toto), and bring her in contact with the men who will become her friends and fellow travelers: The Scarecrow in search of a brain (fleet, light-hearted Gilbert Domally), the Tin Man who craves a heart (Steven Perkins, who brings a formidable voice and droll humor to his role), and the Lion in need of courage (Chuckie Benson, a laugh-inducing loser in big-game clothing).
Virginia Varland’s costumes enhance the urban nature of the storytelling here, with Dorothy in jeans and magical glittery silver high tops removed from the feet of the Wicked Witch of the East; the scarecrow in pants that barely cover his boxer shorts; the Tin Man in a silvery suit, and the Lion in a furry vest (with his mane in rollers). And as the foursome eases itself on down a road painted with yellow traffic stripes, it is periodically joined by two rather surly maintenance workers with hardhats and mobile phones.
The stopping points on their journey also are definitely urban as opposed to glitzy and fantastical, with the characters they meet definitely part of that scene — from the “blackbirds” who prey on them to the Sweat Shop where the nasty witch Evillene rules in an aubergine-hued gown, and wields a cat o’nine tails over her terrified workers. The high-lifers of Emerald City are decked out like sexy club revelers bathed in green light (designed by Alexander Ridgers), with “the good witches” Addaperle (a sassy, stylish Angela Alise), as a material girl sporting a towering African textile turban, and Glinda (the terrifically soulful-voiced Anna Dauzverdis) in a white Spandex jumpsuit. The Wiz, in a posh green velvet robe, is played by Frederick Harris, who brings all the guile of a huckster and a preacher to his role, and does a fine offhand job of finally doling out the travelers’ wishes.
The wonderfully animated ensemble includes choreographer Breon Arzell (whose zesty dance numbers feel far more organic than “choreographed”), and the eye-catching Tia Pinson, Kyrie Courter, TJ Crawford, Desmond Gray, Jyreika Evelyn Guest, De’Jah Perkins and Michael Rawls.
The band, perched on a balcony above the stage, could not be more ideal, with Morehead and his superb musicians (Adam Roebuck, Beaushay Norton, Scott Simon, Mark Berls, Kyle McCollough, Jay Gummert and Adam DeGroot) moving impressively through every style.
If there is a drawback here it is that the storytelling sometimes loses focus on that all-important sense of what is driving the characters to fulfill their dreams, with even Dorothy’s three clicks of the heels of her high tops getting a bit lost in the final moments of the show. But as they say, the journey is all.