The wonder that is 'The Wiz'

Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2003

Prepare to be razzled, dazzled and most importantly entertained as the Kenai Performers put on their most sensational production yet -- "The Wiz."

The show combines strong performances from some new and familiar faces with catchy music, stylish dance numbers, elaborate costumes, impressive sets and unexpected special effects.

"This is going to be the most spectacular show that I have ever done, visually," said Carol Ford, director. "It's just stunning throughout."

This adaptation of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum is an updated version of the classic tale made famous by the movie adaptation, "The Wizard of Oz," starring Judy Garland in 1939.

Though the show is first and foremost aimed to be fun, there are some more serious undertones to the plot that Ford spent a great deal of time researching and developing while putting the show together.

In her research, Ford read Baum's book, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," and found some interesting discrepancies with the popular movie adaptation. In the book, and in "The Wiz," Dorothy really is physically taken to Oz by a tornado, whereas in the movie, it is all a dream. Ford said she never liked that part of the movie because it meant that the plot was about a girl with a lot of ambition who wants to get out in the world, then realizes that all she wants to do is go back home.

"It was a wimp-out," Ford said.

In the book, Dorothy is physically taken to Oz, so her character's motivation for getting home is different.

"It's about something else," Ford said. "It's about a little girl who overcomes adversity."

In her research, Ford discovered that Baum wrote his book based of stories he told his niece, who was sick and died while she was young. The character of Dorothy was based on his niece, and the tornado signified the adversity she was faced with, Ford said.

"(In preparing the show) I realized the question isn't 'What is OZ?'" Ford said. "The question is 'What is the storm?'"

In the book, then, the tornado represented his niece's illness. In "The Wizard of Oz," movie, the tornado represents getting back home after forces outside her control took Dorothy away.

Ford's challenge in staging the show was to decide what the adversity -- the tornado -- would be in her production. She decided the show was about a journey of self-discovery for Dorothy.

"She learned she has the power to be who she is and be proud of it," Ford said. "... The personal ability to accept yourself and not let the rest of the world tell you what you are. She learns what it means to be Dorothy and claim that for herself."


Yvette Tappana, as the wicked witch Evillene, performs a song in "The Wiz."

Photo by Jay Barrett

"The Wiz," adapted by William F. Brown, follows the same storyline of displaced Dorothy trying to find her way out of Oz and back to Kansas with the help of the Scarecrow, Tinman, Lion and other friends she meets along the yellow brick road.

Though the plot remains the same -- yes, Dorothy and Toto still make it home in the end -- the presentation is far different. Whereas the movie version strove to be charming and at times a little scary, "The Wiz" shoots for all-out fun and entertainment. Gone are the whimsical songs like "If I Only Had Brain" sung with careful annunciation and charm. In this show they are replaced with catchy jazz and blues numbers by Charlie Smalls that have characters belting out tunes with vibrato and soul.

The dialogue has been updated as well, which allows for more humor and different character interpretations. The good witch Glinda, for example, is somewhat different in this version. In "The Wiz," and in Baum's original book, there are two good witches -- Glinda, the good witch of the North, who still saves the day at the end, and Addaperle, the good witch of the South, who meets Dorothy in Oz. Unlike the movie Glinda's wise and benevolent persona when she meets Dorothy in Oz, Addaperle is a ditzy, though well-meaning, blonde who is more adept at botched magic tricks than she is at doling out helpful advice.

The trio of friends Dorothy meets is somewhat different as well. They still do the same things and want the same things from the Wiz, but they, too, have been updated.

"All the (friends) have the same things they want, they're just cooler in this one," Ford said. "They're jazzy and fun and a little funky."

The Lion, for instance, is still the king of the forest, but in this production he's made out to look like a different king -- Elvis.

"A lot of the costumes are based on the look of certain rock stars -- what a girl in the flat lands would think is dramatic," Ford said.

The main draw of the friends' characters remains intact, however -- their camaraderie.

"They play off each other," said Tom Anderson, who plays the Lion. "A look or a scritch of the mouth gets a lot said that you didn't have in the beginning (of rehearsals)."

After weeks of rehearsals, the actors playing the group of friends have had a chance to become friends, which adds to their interaction onstage.

"The friendship in real life plays into our acting," said Danielle Thompson, who plays Dorothy. "It wouldn't be the same if Tom and I didn't have that relationship."

Unlike more serious theatrical shows where the plot and dialogue are the sole elements of the production, "The Wiz" allows for a production that encompasses more than just the development of the story line. Since it is a musical, songs and dances are an integral element of the production.

The updated score and dialog creates opportunities for updated dance numbers that make up a significant portion of the show. The main characters dance during their songs, while another corps of dancers, choreographed by Rick Langley of The Dance Emporium, perform the bulk of the movements. The dancers in this show aren't relegated to the role of "backup" dancers, as is the case in many musicals. In some scenes they take on a role of their own. For instance the yellow brick road and the tornado are portrayed by dancers.

The fact that the story is a fantasy allows for a much more creative and spectacular approach to the sets and costumes as well -- a license which the Kenai Perfor-mers made full use of.


From left, Tom Anderson as the Lion, Erik Larson as the Tinman, Marc Berezin as The Wiz and Danielle Thompson as Dorothy converse in a scene from "The Wiz."

Photo courtesy of Jay Barrett

The entire show is filled with fun nuances and embellishments to the set and overall production. Evillene's (the wicked witch of the West) throne, for instance, is a huge carved wooden chair which she has to climb like a ladder to get onto. On the chair is a sign of her name, which illuminates with running lights when she sings her number.

"Everybody's just having a lot of fun with it and if someone thinks of something outlandish, it's usually not too outlandish to work," Ford said. "Because it's a fantasy you can do so many things."

The production crew has a number of unexpected special effects in store for the audience as well, including magic tricks, slight of hand and some others that have never before been incorporated in a Kenai Performers show. It would be anticlimactic to spoil the surprise before the show, but, suffice it to say, small children may want to sit in the middle of the auditorium instead of the front.

"There's hardly a scene that doesn't have a surprise," Ford said.

An audience's first chance to be pleasantly surprised by "The Wiz" is Friday at 7 p.m. Other shows are Saturday, Feb. 20, 21, 22 and 23 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 22 and 23 at 3 p.m.

"It is the most entertaining and complicated of musicals they've done so far," said Lisa Boulette, who plays Addaperle. "I really hope that comes out in the show. ... It's not spooky or creepy, its fun. Even our bad guys are good guys with redeemable qualities."

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