By Ian Rigg
Sometimes something becomes so familiar that the best possible thing is to brilliantly turn it on its head.
It doesn’t hurt if you inadvertently crush an evil witch in the process.
In 1930s Kansas, that’s just what Oz did to Dorothy’s sad, sepia-toned existence, and in 1974, The Wiz did the same to The Wizard of Oz. It was a delightful and divine subversion of L. Frank Baum, taking that tried-and-true but lily-white classic, and speaking to 20th century black culture. Now Kokandy Productions has taken that redo, remixed it and really rather remarkably revolutionized it for the 21st century.
With some of the best talent in Chicago at her back, Director Lili-Anne Brown serves up a side-splitting and socially conscious skewering of that ol’ somewhere over the rainbow.
Audiences are immersed in these artists’ alternative universe as soon as they enter the space. They hear Michael J. Patrick’s spot-on sound design, selecting songs like Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope” and “Electric Lady” and TLC’s “Waterfalls” to set the tone from the get-go. (Guests can look forward to clever contemporary sound cues throughout.)
Next, they’ll turn right, and see Arnel Sanciacno’s spectacular set, a massive two-tier titan that conjures concrete, abloom with graffiti. A yellow ladder leads to the top level, where marvelous music director Jimmy Morehead’s phenomenal pit plays.
Before they even take a seat, theatregoers are already primed for the classic tale of Dorothy Gale, with a twist: she’s growing up in The Kansas Homes. Her housing project is alive with activity, from basketball to games of cards to impromptu hair appointments (and of course, everyone’s activity cleverly alludes to their role in the candy-colored other world). Mealah Heidenreich’s comprehensive prop design grounds the production in reality before offering a fantastical spin on it.
A cool and clever dance number lifts Dorothy away from Kansas, in a marvelous maelstrom that’s metaphorical of the one who put it together: Breon Arzell isn’t a choreographer, so much as he is a force of nature. At once elegantly complex and effortlessly cool, the dancing is the lifeblood of this vibrant show and is executed flawlessly by an excellent ensemble.
That ensemble is suddenly clad in hemp hoodies and baja stipes as Dorothy, in a haze of smoke, finds herself in an all new realm. A voice reminiscent of the CTA announcer declares, “This is Munchkinland.”
A street sign reads, “Welcome to Oz. Population: A hella lot. Ease safely.”
With a brief exposition and a pair of silver high tops on her feet, she’s off to ease on down the road to see The Wiz (paired with running joke “OTA” workers in hard hats).
Brown and company truly thought of every little touch to bring her vision to life. Costume Designer Virginia Varland is to be commended for her brilliant balance of magic and reality, a masterful mix of fantasy and street style. Dorothy’s gingham shirt and cowboy boots tie her to the original’s Kansas roots, the Tin Man is styled like a living statue standing downtown, and the Wiz…well, that great secret must be kept for ticketholders (it’s because of the wonderful things he does).
This same attention to detail and vibrant life is paid by the actors. Each and every member of the ensemble gives a knockout performance. The singing is as phenomenal as the dancing, thanks to deft musical direction by Morehead, and sounds crisp as can be over the pit thanks to the capable sound engineering of Kirstin Johnson.
Sydney Charles makes a spectacular Dorothy. Every dance move comes with an innocent joie de vivre, and Chance the Rapper would do well to approach her to sing on a single. Gilbert Domally nails the Scarecrow; he has the physicality of a baby giraffe taking its first steps in a wet noodle factory. He’s as much a joy to watch as he is to listen to. Steven Perkins is sensational as the Tin Man, bringing a rad rigidity to his role, and a cool emotionality for the man without a heart. Leslie Odom Jr. beware: he not only has the vocal chops, he literally chops with an ax.
Chuckie Benson’s character may try to be “a mean old Lion,” but he couldn’t be more lovable. He has great comedic timing and a fabulous 50s rock ‘n’roll vibe to his voice. Anna Dauzvardis glows as Glinda, gracing the production at its pinnacle. Angela Alise astounds as Addaperle, playing her as an irreverent pseudo-magician perpetually in the presence of pot smoke. Her command of her voice and of comedy know no bounds.
Nicole Michelle Haskins is cast in an intriguing dual role of Aunt Em and Evillene, and is utterly amazing in both. As Aunt Em she plays tough love with aplomb, and as Evillene, she’s clearly having the time of her life. She has a magnificent instrument. And Frederick Harris’ take on the titular role is just wonderful. He makes makes everyone want to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.
The truest testament to the excellence of this production is its willingness to make a stand. Not everything is played for laughs. This is no mere feel-good fluff musical; it’s got something to say. This wonderful Wiz will compel audiences to heed one of Glinda’s altered lyrics: “Believe in black girl magic.”
Brown does what other directors only yearn to do (if they only had the nerve). There are lots of powerful political points peppered throughout the production, like when Addaperle explains she can’t “traffic a minor across state lines”, and one Munchkin calls out, “Yeah, she got two priors!”
After the quartet’s exploits with the poppies (dressed to evoke prostitutes), the Cowardly Lion is stopped by police on suspicion of possession. As he’s arrested, the lively and expressive Kyrie Courter comes onstage to film it with a cell phone, concerned as can be.
Even in the merry old land of Oz, racial profiling and unjust police brutality are still a threat.
Maybe we can drop a house on that, too.
Audiences will adore Kokandy’s take on The Wiz. It’s brimming with quality and entertainment from tip to tail, so ease on down to Theatre Wit.
Kokandy Productions presents “The Wiz” through April 23 at Theater Wit, 1220 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.