‘The Wiz’ at Berkeley Playhouse proves energetic, soulful yet surprisingly flat

Retelling of family classic 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz' fails to excite

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It’s hard to think of any story that would lend itself to a theater or film adaptation better than the story told in L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Its stirring adventure, fantastical environments and dynamic characters seem to demand visual representation. Indeed, several successful screen and stage adaptations of this tale have been made, most famously in the 1939 fantasy adventure film “The Wizard of Oz” — a film that has its own special spot in American popular culture. The story has also been reimagined in the “The Wiz,” a Tony Award-winning musical that retells the journey of Dorothy and her friends featuring a largely African American cast. The Berkeley Playhouse’s version of “The Wiz,” directed by Kimberly Dooley and currently running at the Julia Morgan Theater, is an ambitious, energetic show that, nevertheless, fails to truly excite.

The Berkeley production of “The Wiz” is definitely not lacking in energy or effort. Featuring a cast of nearly 50 (approximately half adults and half children) as well as a six-piece band, “The Wiz” is the Playhouse’s most ambitious project yet. The show begins by throwing the audience into the midst of the whirlwind tornado that removes the young Dorothy (Taylor Jones) from her home and drops her in the colorful and magical land of Oz. Through powerful songs such as “Home,” “The Feeling We Once Had,” “Believe in Yourself,” “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” and “Ease On Down the Road,” the audience is led through Dorothy’s journey to find a way back home.

The storyline seemingly draws on elements from the original novel, the 1939 film adaptation and the Broadway musical “The Wiz” while adding its own local Berkeley twist. Particularly compelling is the dance number performed by the Tin Man (Reggie D. White) once he regains control of his limbs with the help of the oil can, the sassy entrance of the Wicked Witch of the West and the seductive song of the magic poppies, which renders the Cowardly Lion (Benjamin Pither) amusingly intoxicated.

However, there doesn’t seem to be much holding these numbers together. Although it seems safe to assume that most people are at least somewhat familiar with the basic storyline of this tale, the staging leaves a lot unsaid, which creates confusion and leaves the play feeling quite flat. Part of this can be attributed to the somewhat hasty transitions between scenes. Dorothy’s encounter with the Scarecrow (AeJay Mitchell) seemingly comes out of nowhere, as does the appearance of Evillene the Wicked Witch (Sarah Mitchell), the arrival of the mouse patrol and so forth.

Another source of confusion is the fact that the motivation of the characters often remains unclear. Why does the Tin Man want a heart? Why does the Wiz (Vernon Bush) want to see the Wicked Witch dead? Most importantly, why is Dorothy trying to get home? Without a sense of what it is that drives the characters, they are left feeling washed out and unfamiliar.

This is especially the case with Dorothy. Despite appearing in the majority of scenes, Dorothy makes a remarkably small impression. This is detrimental to the overall effect of the play because without getting to know Dorothy, it’s difficult to become invested in her journey. Somewhere amid the laughter, the banter and the singing, the play loses sight of what’s at stake for this character. Those in the audience may know that Dorothy is trying desperately to get back home to Kansas, but the problem is whether or not they can really feel it.

“The Wiz” is running at the Julia Morgan Theatre through August 25.

Contact Corinne Platten at [email protected].