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From the second I saw Diana Ross’ ethereal Dorothy appear on the screen during my first, fateful viewing of The Wiz, I was hooked. I had already seen and loved the original Wizard of Oz and been scared by those damn flying monkeys. But to see people, my people, in a much more soulful and entirely African-American adaptation was something special. I’ve been easing on down the road ever since. This, I suspect, is the experience of many a lover of The Wiz.
With that iconic starting point, it’s hard to imagine how any theater could get it just right, recapturing the hammy magic of the 1978 film, adapted from the 1975 Broadway musical. Fortunately for D.C. audiences, Ford’s Theatre has created its own magic with its new production of The Wiz. The Kent Gash-directed show is big, fun, and flashy. It garners huge laughs from the crowd, and in certain parts may leave you a little misty-eyed.
It’s tricky to recreate something that many people are already familiar with and fond of. It’s even more difficult to step into shoes once inhabited by Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne, Nipsey Russell, and Ted Ross. But this Ford’s cast puts its own mark on The Wiz, following no yellow brick road but their own.
Ines Nassara gives a goofy and sweet performance as Dorothy, but her supporting cast provide the show’s highlights. Hasani Allen’s Scarecrow, who in this adaptation has flowing dreads, is perfect with his endearing Forrest Gump-esque accent and silly antics, and the Tinman, played by Kevin McAllister, takes an axe to the audience’s feelings with both his acting and his tremendous vocals. His character manages to deliver the most soul and the most heart, despite not actually having one.
As for Christopher Michael Richardson’s Lion—I went home after seeing the show wondering how I could get a big sassy lion friend like him. Though he lacks courage, he never leads Dorothy astray. Monique Midgette conveys confidence while playing the wicked witch Evillene, her good sister Addaperle, and Dorothy’s Aunt Em, and Jobari Parker-Namdar puts a quirky, drama-filled spin on the title character. The background and non-speaking cast are on point, too, twirling, singing, and comedically dropping to the floor whenever the story calls for it.
One of the production’s greatest strengths is the vocal range of its cast. The voices in this show are exquisite, particularly those of Nassara and Awa Sal Secka, who stars as Glinda the good witch. Secka’s voice elicited audible gasps from the audience during the performance I attended. Those voices carry “Ease on Down the Road,” “If You Believe,” “Home,” and other songs fans might feel compelled to sing along with.
Gash and scenic designer Jason Sherwood use the entirety of Ford’s stage, balcony, and audience space. Oz’s gatekeeper first appears on a balcony next to theatergoers, and when it was time to travel to Glinda’s good witch domain, dancers floated throughout the audience rows. During the tornado that takes Dorothy to Oz, her old house flips upside down onstage.
The production is a bonafide party, a celebration of blackness in all its many forms. There’s a lot of laughs, a lot of heart, and the pacing is as well-oiled as the Tinman’s knees. It feels familiar, but also remarkably modern—look for shoutouts to Black Panther, references to gentrification, and most splendidly, a yellow brick road personified as dancers with golden staffs and golden Afros.
At Ford’s Theatre to May 12 . 511 10th St. NW. $25–$81. (202) 347-4833. fords.org.