The Redhouse conjures urban vibrations and funky oohs and Oz for The Wiz
The Redhouse has been developing a new brand this season, and you can see how it’s working out in the current production of The Wiz. Ever since the company launched itself from what had once been Contemporary Theatre of Syracuse in 2004, we knew this would be a professional outfit. When needed, talent will be imported from Manhattan or wherever. Under the redolent presence of Laura Austin, redoubled under new artistic director Stephen Svoboda, the Redhouse yearns to break off the arts incubator (even a stylish one) and connect with new audiences.
Thus, over the summer a strippeddown Romeo and Juliet toured as far afield as Clifton Springs, and the 12th-century poem Conference of the Birds was staged at St. Lucy’s Church on Gifford Street. So while the Redhouse usually draws audiences from the east to the building in Armory Square, The Wiz really throws open the welcoming door to the west, to streets like Shonnard, Bellevue and Geddes. Ease on down to 201 S. West St.
Then again, by Redhouse standards, which just completed the cultish Bat Boy: The Musical, Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown’s The Wiz feels almost like an unlikely safe choice. Not only have many community and youth groups performed it, but the narrative outline, from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, is perhaps the single bestknown story in American popular culture.
True, this is the African-American revamping, but everyone knows what Dorothy and her three pals are questing for, and everyone knows what the Wiz is hiding behind the curtain. Nobody goes to see The Wiz to see how it comes out but rather to see what fun can be had in getting there.
In Smalls and Brown’s original book this Dorothy still lives in white-bread Kansas, but in Svoboda’s staging we move the logical step to seeing the opening action in Harlem, and to Harlem she must return. News reports tell us that Harlem has been gentrifying lately and real estate prices are rising, but in this version Harlem is a place of loving family figures, like Aunt Em (Jasmine Knight), but also of economic want. This point of view gives a nudge to costumer Meghan Pearson, with the witty visual device of making the well-designed costumes of, for example, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion look as though they were assembled from scraps. The idea does not extend to stunning, sexy Evilene (the Wicked Witch’s real name) or to the Wiz himself, a fashion plate.
Once we get into the action, however, disciplined professionalism reigns. Lovely Joan T. Anderson has come up from North Carolina to sing as Dorothy, winning us over with “Soon as I Get Home” early in the first act. A dancer as well as a singer, she fulfills the choreography of Caitlin Geier, who came here last summer to work on the Redhouse’s Metamorphoses. That show was partially staged in a pool of water, and the narrow space in the Redhouse, constructed at a time when people were thinking of dramatic intimacy instead of high kicks. Geier arranges much of the movement up and down stage rather than across.
Easing on down the road with Dorothy are two strong baritones from out of town: Evan Michael Smith from Manhattan as the Tin Man, especially for “Slide Some Oil to Me,” and Temar Underwood, seen in last winter’s Odysseus DOA, as the Lion, whose ironic “Mean Ole Lion” is one of the best numbers in the first act. Fitting well into such polished company is Stephfond Brunson, a highly experienced player from community theater, once hailed as Syracuse’s Cab Calloway. Not only does Brunson move well as the Scarecrow, but his timing never lets a gag get away from him.
In his modest program entry, Kevin Mobley (as the Wiz) describes himself only as a professional voice-over actor, certainly what is called for when we hear his booming, orotund vocals before we ever see him. It’s a plummy voice, implicit of authority but always hinting at naughty decadence. He might also be asked to speak for the Genie in a remake of Sinbad the Sailor. Visually, he offers just as much. The striped, tailored gray suit on his lean frame befits a man that could take charge, even if he’s joshing us.
Speaking of voices, powerhouse Jasmine Knight (earlier heard as Aunt Em) stops the show with Evilene’s “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.” Usually seen as a Bad Mama, Evilene is supposed to knock us out of our seats, but Svoboda and costumer Pearson make her surprisingly sexy, with more skin than we’re used to seeing. As she’s also such a hydrophobic, it only takes a dash if water to dispatch her, but we’re sorry to see her go. The line about melting is not borrowed from L. Frank Baum.
Being a friendly neighbor, director Svoboda has also cast 11 young people, most of whom were prepared by the Hillside Family of Agencies, a national outfit whose local branch is at 215 Wyoming St. on the Near West Side, a few blocks from the Redhouse. Well-coached, they follow Geier’s steps as Munchkins, Crows, Monkeys, Winkies and Friends. They are joined by other young people, Lucy Di Genova and Brandon Martin, in some musical numbers.
Zachary Orts, musical director of Bad Boy, returns with a high-volume four-player ensemble that pushes out the walls, requiring miking for some singers. Then again, for The Wiz, nobody wants to call to turn it up. That blast is what’s called for.
the way, one of Pearson’s costumes, that for Brunson’s tall, thin
Scarecrow, contains a delicious in-joke, one detectible to faithful
readers of the Syracuse New Times, implying there may be others too
subtle to catch. This Scarecrow wears a pork pie hat from which falls a
wreath of shredded newspaper, suggesting a mane of white hair. Below the
Scarecrow is wearing a loose fitting suit in bad need of mending. The
longtime champion of youth theater and founder of the Media Unit should
be deeply flattered.
This production runs through Saturday, Dec. 10. See Times Table for information.