The Wiz Review: Despite Stunning Performances, New Revival Eases Aimlessly Down the Road

A smarter, warmer, bolder revival of The Wiz remains tantalizingly out of reach.

The Wiz
Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Before Dorothy’s mother passed away, she had a favorite saying, as Aunt Em reminds her grieving niece in the opening scene of The Wiz: “The hard stuff is there to let you know just how good you got it.” And while that’s a curious mantra to undergird a production of a Broadway musical, there’s something to it in the latest revival.

The first musical by a Black composer to win Tony Awards for best musical and best score, this well-loved show turns 50 next year. If Schele Williams’s simplistic and sometimes bewildering staging doesn’t itself demonstrate how the show has held up across those decades, she wisely steers all attention toward the main event: the stunning vocal performances from her cast. And since the show’s underwhelming visuals feel like less of a distraction than an afterthought, it’s easy enough to put the “hard stuff” to one side and just relish the aural euphoria.

Unbridled joy arrives on the stage of the Marriott Marquis in the form of Broadway newcomer Nichelle Lewis, a Dorothy whose vocals sometimes rival Stephanie Mills’s astonishing teenaged performance on the original 1975 cast album and Diana Ross’s (rather older) interpretation of the role in Sidney Lumet’s much-maligned 1978 film. Lewis’s supreme control allows her to communicate Dorothy’s maturity from wide-eyed uncertainty into gutsy self-determination.


Lewis’s voice grows throughout The Wiz as she does. In “Be a Lion,” which, along with the finale “Home,” are two of the most stirring ballads ever composed for the musical theater, Lewis even lets loose a chills-inspiring, Mariah Carey-evoking whistle tone. A voice that can do anything, this revival seems to argue, must belong to a girl who can do anything.

Lewis is well-matched in all of her fellow travelers: Avery Wilson’s silken-voiced Scarecrow, Phillip Johnson Richardson’s bashfully cool Tin Man, and, best of all, Kyle Ramar Freeman’s kittenishly expressive Lion. Chart-topping singer Deborah Cox is convincing as Glinda, scatting heartily through “He’s the Wiz” and reaching the rafters in a moving “Believe in Yourself,” while the ever-affable Wayne Brady makes a dapper return to Broadway in the title role.

The Wiz
Deborah Cox as Glinda in The Wiz. Jeremy Daniel

Fans of previous iterations of The Wiz will find little of William F. Brown’s original book intact. Comedian Amber Ruffin (a Tony nominee last season for Some Like It Hot) has rewritten almost all of the dialogue with a winking lightheartedness that’s occasionally deliriously funny but also often just plain delirious. In her reimagining of the Tin Man’s backstory, for example, his transformation took place after he unwittingly roasted a Wicked Witch for a pitchy karaoke performance of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” (Ruffin’s script runs rampant with roasts: “You’re an eight-year-old traveling with talking garbage and a dusty cat,” an Ozian guard tells Dorothy.) Logic doesn’t abound here—nor is it sought—but the cast gamely delivers Ruffin’s one-liners with a unifying smirky sensibility that serves the unserious material well.

But the book was never the show’s selling point anyway. That was always the score by Charlie Smalls, in all its soul-rooted buoyancy and depth of feeling. (Luther Vandross provided a sole tune, the glorious “Everybody Rejoice.”) Joseph Joubert’s new orchestrations add a jazzier playfulness throughout, even if Harold Wheeler’s original classic arrangements are missed: Most disappointing is the absence of the entire tornado sequence, some of the most thrilling music (co-composed by Wheeler, not Smalls) on the original recording. What little tornado does remain, Williams stages incomprehensibly, with the swirling gray silks hardly conveying a weather event, let alone suggesting that Dorothy and her house have gone airborne.


Other half-hearted staging moments include a low-energy battle with forest monsters, a lifeless excursion to the seductive poppy fields, and a clumsy take on the climactic melting scene. During several musical numbers, namely Dorothy’s “Soon as I Get Home,” as she first travels down the yellow brick road, the cast seems to meander aimlessly. The small-scale set mainly consists of rolling facades and a tree stump or two, all in front of Daniel Brodie’s cartoonish projections, which range from cute to tacky but never really impress. And while individual dancers exude distinctive personalities, the ensemble delivers JaQuel Knight’s choreography without the sort of sharp synchronization typically expected from Broadway choruses.

But the updates to the score also include some terrific new vocal arrangements courtesy of Allen René Louis, and the moment that Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion raise their voices in fresh harmony at the end of the first act, the production’s shortcomings could be forgiven and must be forgotten. A smarter, warmer, bolder revival of The Wiz remains tantalizingly out of reach, but Lewis delivers brains, heart, and courage all on her own.

The Wiz is now running at the Marquis Theatre.

Dan Rubins

Dan Rubins is a writer, composer, and arts nonprofit leader. He’s also written about theater for CurtainUp, Theatre Is Easy, A Younger Theatre, and the journal Shakespeare. Check out his podcast The Present Stage.

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