School of Drama's The Wiz filled with unbridled energy

This week, Carnegie Mellon’s Purnell School Of Drama continues performances of a The Wizard Of Oz adaptation known as The Wiz. Based on a book by William F. Brown, directed and choreographed by Tomé Cousin, with music and lyrics written by Charlie Smalls, the production is a high octane musical full of vibrant sets, rambunctious musical numbers and elaborately choreographed dances. Loud and brash on the surface, but with significant meaning underneath, this adaptation of a classic put forth by Carnegie Mellon’s School Of Drama makes for a rollicking good time and also leads to some pensive reflection.

The core story of Oz is one of the greatest ever told — a simple Kansas girl goes on a magical adventure through the land of Oz. With a kind heart, she makes friends and wins over the people of Oz, banishing evil in the process. Most importantly, she comes to learn that whatever she seeks cannot be given to her by an outsider, because it is already within her. It is nothing short of incredible that this idea carries so much weight, and resonates so universally more than a hundred years after The Wizard Of Oz was first written.

The big difference with The Wiz is the way that story is delivered to the audience. Saucy, colorful, and full of unbridled energy, The Wiz is a red-hot, white-knuckled journey through Oz that leaves the audience in wonder or in splits multiple times every minute.
The musical numbers are heavily influenced by R&B, funk and the Blues. With shuffling, tappable rhythms and big sing-along choruses, the music is designed to stay in your head long after the show is over. Some of the songs, such as “Brand New Day,” which comes after the defeat of the Wicked Witch Of The West, are huge and elaborate, with nearly the entire cast on stage singing and dancing at the same time. Others, such as “So You Wanted To Meet The Wizard,” are carried singlehandedly by the namesake character. The standout song, however, is “Be A Lion.” Sung by Dorothy and The Lion, the song is by far the most touching of the lot. This song is the first time Dorothy really blooms as a character; furthermore, one can really feel for The Lion’s plight.

The casting is spot on as well. Every character is more than sufficient, and a few stand out as truly brilliant. Senior musical theatre major Alexis Floyd makes for an incredible Dorothy. Playing an innocent rural girl with a heart of gold, Floyd successfully takes this sparse set of traits and builds a character that the audience comes to love. Senior musical theatre major Jean G. Floradin as The Lion is another great choice. Floradin is captivating in every scene he dominates, and ends up dominating most scenes he is in. It is The Wiz himself, however, played by senior musical theatre major Erron Crawford, that is the play’s proverbial ace in the hole. From his Act One scenes as his all powerful avatar to his Second Act unravelling, Erron is incredibly versatile, going from threatening to sermonizing, from being a hapless victim to a sleazy liar, through the course of the play.

All in all, The Wiz is what you’d expect when one of the finest drama schools in the country does an adaptation of one of the greatest stories of the modern era — mostly excellent, with tiny flaws here and there. Parts of Act One, such as those with Addaperle, The Good Witch Of The North, sometimes feel overdone. Act Two seems a little rushed. The Wicked Witch Of The West is vanquished within ten minutes of the show’s reconvening. That said, the show’s strengths handily outweigh its weaknesses and cumulatively make for a pleasant and enjoyable two hours.