Ease on Down…The Yellow Tuxedos?

The Allen Elizabethan Theatre stage at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival was blank, except for a large yellow banner with “KANSAS” marked in the center. It showed the state with quaint farmland, a cityscape, and if you looked hard enough, you could see the Emerald City too…

Have you guessed what I’m seeing?

Dorothy (Ashley D. Kelley) and Toto (Chaz) are about to be danced off stage by a huge storm. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Yes, the beloved story of the Wizard of Oz. But—this is The Wiz, the 1970’s piece.

While the show has won 7 Tony awards when it first played on Broadway, starring Stephanie Mills, it was never able to make a strong transition to the modern stage. Charlie Smalls composed the music, winning best original score at the Tony’s and a Drama Desk Award for best outstanding music and lyrics. It is a true musical of its time, which can make it difficult for contemporary audiences to latch onto-or maybe that’s just me. I have never enjoyed music from this era, so I was skeptical walking into this rendition.

This show, along with the others we saw in The Elizabethan Theatre during the 2016 season, lacked an appropriate set. The minimalist opening banner set the tone of what to expect—which was not much. From simple wooden cut outs twirling in the storm to an unimpressive basket for the hot air balloon, I can list the major set pieces on one hand. When transporting audiences to another world, like Oz, why choose the minimalist route?

The costumes (by Dede M. Ayite) of Dorothy, Tinman, Scarecrow, and Lion follow traditional ideas of their characters with some upgrades—which could also be said of their acting performances. Lion, played by Christina Clark, got a sleek womanly makeover—fit with wedges and a gold hued pleated coat cinched in at the waist. Clark showed control and abandon as was fitting to her character’s journey of growing in courage. She begins fainthearted, but after a trip with some psychedelic poppies she begins to blossom into an empowered woman. Clark and Ashley D. Kelly (Dorothy) had a tight, sisterly connection that helped solidify the quartet. Kelly was a sweet, bubbly Dorothy who carried her solos well. She lacked a general motivation for getting anywhere (like, say, home?), so it left me feeling unconnected to her arch as a character.

Tinman’s arms and legs are covered in a futuristic geometric design, like a tattoo from Tron. Rodney Gardiner, a small but mighty performer, carried this character with grace and class. He tapped his way into my heart in his first number, and serenaded it the rest of the show through powerful ballads, like “What Would I Do If I Could Feel.” While I can’t remember the tune of any of these songs, I remember his charm and passion. Gardiner has been in many excellent OSF productions and he always shines above the rest.

To close out this group is Scarecrow, played by J. Cameron Barnett. If I squinted my eyes just a bit, this man was a spitting image of a young Michael Jackson. A true jester, decked in a Shakespearean inspired ensemble, sans the traditional straw stuffed outfit. Barnett had weaker vocals than the rest of the cast, but his dancing was peppy and interesting. I expect to see him in future OSF productions.

Lion (Christiana Clark) tries not to appear cowardly when she meets Dorothy (Ashley D. Kelley), Scarecrow (J. Cameron Barnett) and Tinman (Rodney Gardiner). Photo by Jenny Graham. 

The ensemble of this show stunned the audience with a variety of eccentric and over the top dances to support the main quartet. They flirted with gender bending costumes and mannerism in every scene, which perfectly captured the essence of a magical land such as Oz. Glittering gold tuxedos and top hats on performers were substitutes for a physical road. My only wish was that they had filled their dance on ensemble with a few more performers to carry out the illusion.

Many an interesting character paraded through this show, but the scene stealer was by far the Wiz himself. Thank goodness for Jordan Barbour, whose rainbow mile high hair and power suits with fringe kept up the energy and captured the true spirit of this magical land of Oz. His voice was silky, strong, and deep in all the right ways. The falling resolution of this show is too long, but we were graced with two beautiful ballads by Britney Simpson.

The Wiz (Jordan Barbour) stealing the hearts of Ozians (Desmond Nunn, Eean S. Cochran) and audience members. Photo by Dale Robinette.

Overall, Robert O’Hara did a fine job with the production, but could have benefited from more backing by OSF in terms of number of performers and set design. Other shows this season (Twelfth Night and Yeoman of the Guard) had quite elaborate sets, so it can be done. It appears that OSF is aiming for a more scaled back version in their outdoor venue–let’s just make sure the appropriate shows get placed in their appropriate venue!


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