Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 10
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
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Pennington Players “Ease On Down the Road” to Oz in Spirited Production of “The Wiz” at Kelsey Theatre

Donald Gilpin

Need a break from the bleak economic news? A fantasy trip to the wonderful world of Oz seems to have served that purpose in the past—in 1900 when L. Frank Baum published his original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in the midst of the Great Depression when Judy Garland starred as Dorothy in the classic 1939 movie, and again in 1975 when the Motown-style version, The Wiz, settled in on Broadway for a four-year run.

The Pennington Players’ production of The Wiz, currently at Mercer County Community College’s Kelsey Theatre, might be just the antidote needed to once again raise spirits and restore confidence during these troubled times. It isn’t exactly the chorus of “change” promoted in the past election nor the inspiration of the Obama inauguration celebration, but, as Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion, joined by the rest of the company, rejoice in their liberation from Evillene, the wicked witch of the west, their refrain of “Everybody be glad … can’t you feel a brand new day?” resonates happily.

Originally billed as a “black musical,” The Wiz, in this high-energy production, features an ethnically diverse cast in an entertaining evening of rock, gospel, and soul music written by Charlie Smalls (with some additional material by Luther Vandross). The book by William F. Brown follows the original story, with much trimming and updating, including a lively dose of humor and contemporary language.

The original Broadway production of The Wiz ran for 1672 performances over a four-year period and won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The 1978 film adaptation, starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Lena Horne, and Richard Pryor, was less successful.

Under the direction of local theater artist Kyrus, with vocal direction by J.A Kawarsky, music direction under the baton of Nicholas Cheng, and choreography by Hilary Goldman, the Pennington Players’ production of The Wiz moves along swiftly, with abundant action, humor, dance and engaging music, in telling this tale of the young girl Dorothy, swept away to the land of Oz in a tornado. Amidst wicked witches and an assortment of daunting adversaries and obstacles, she plunges into a quest to help each of her friends find his life’s fulfillment — the Scarecrow a brain, the Tin Man a heart and the Lion courage — and to find her own way back home to Kansas. First they must travel the yellow brick road to the Emerald City.

The last performances of “The Wiz” will be Friday and Saturday, March 13 and 14, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 15 at 2 p.m. in the Kelsey Theatre on the Mercer County Community College campus. Call (609) 570-3333 or visit for information.

Kyrus, currently a student at Westminster School of the Arts, has assembled a company of committed professionals, amateurs, and students. Though the performances and production values are uneven, the overall effect is enjoyable and often captivating, with an array of memorable moments throughout the evening.

Sasha Alexandria, a senior at MCCC, as Dorothy provides a solid, dependable core to the production. In a range of solo, duet, and ensemble numbers throughout the show, she displays strong, mostly melodic, vocal qualities and consistently credible characterization. The heavily, inconsistently miked sound system occasionally exaggerates both volume and harshness of tone for Dorothy and others. Also, with a young woman, rather than a girl, as Dorothy some of the appeal of this character and perhaps the audience’s ability to identify with the fantasy may be lost. Judy Garland in the “Wizard of Oz” movie and Stephanie Mills in the original production of “The Wiz” were both just 16, though Diana Ross in the movie adaptation of “the Wiz” was 33.

“Easing on down the road” with Dorothy, her faithful companions, Allwyn L. Baskin as the Scarecrow, Nicholas Pecht as the Tin Man, and Jamel Taylor as the Lion, are all excellent. Mr. Baskin is thoroughly convincing and appealing as the awkward Scarecrow. Dressed in tatters, with “brainless” demeanor, he moves with skillful precision, convincingly delivers a range of emotions, and stands by Dorothy with stalwart loyalty.

Mr. Pecht, in black coveralls and silver-paint make-up, introduces himself in a slick, memorable number (“Slide some oil to me and let me liberate my mind”), displays consistently strong performance skills, and proves anything but heartless. And Mr. Taylor, lion-coated with tail and painted face, delivers some of the sharpest humor of the evening in his blustery, king-of-the-jungle boldness, which conceals his scaredy-cat persona (He’s in therapy with an owl.) and his overriding desire to help Dorothy and their comrades.

Samille Ganges as Evillene, the wicked witch of the West, authoritatively personifies wickedness and bad temper, as she rules over her Winkies and Winged Monkeys. She warns “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” and her top-of-the-second-act production number, in which she introduces herself and her out-sized attitude, is a show-stopper — more comical than frightening, and colorfully idiosyncratic. Luckily for Dorothy and her cohorts, but too bad for the audience, the Scarecrow with a bucket of water eliminates Evillene in a cloud of steam, or smoke (nice bit of tech work), after just one scene.

The title character (Antwan Michael), in his dazzling emerald green costume, is highly dramatic with appropriately glamorous staging, before Dorothy exposes his hum-buggery and he makes a credible transition to reveal the normal Nebraskan fellow under the glitter of Oz. His two final numbers “Believe in Yourself” and “Y’all Got It” help deliver a moving, inspirational uplift to the final moments of the show.

Cheryl L. King with her powerful singing voice as Aunt Em; a perky, amiable, amusing and melodious Kim LaSala as the good witch Addaperle; and Tamika Reed, appearing in the final scene as the elegant, golden-voiced Glinda, the good witch of the South, all deliver memorable characterizations and fine moments. Beverly Kuo-Hamilton, Aimee Robidoux, and DiAnna Freeman Westcott join Ms. King and Ms. Reed as Pit Singers, whose voices resonate to great effect throughout the production, though they appear on stage only twice.

Mr. Cheng’s five-man pit band provides a rousing Overture and Entr’acte and balanced, first-rate accompaniment throughout. The busy chorus of six dancers — Elena Caracappa, Tara Fregia, Alexandra Pollard, Heather Santos, Talia Shumsonk, and Rachel Tovar — dons a rich array of costumes, designed by Kelley Tharp, to become the tornado, Munchkins, crows, the yellow brick road, poppies, field mice, and Emerald City citizens, among other roles. Though the choreography, ranging from ballet to rock, fluctuates in interest and originality, the ensemble is well rehearsed and energetic. Steve Browne (Uncle Henry) and Alexander Horowitz (Lord High Underling) lend additional support in a variety of roles.

Last week a small obituary notice appeared in the national press, marking the passing, at age 91, of Clarence Swensen, the actor who played one of the Munchkin soldiers who greet Dorothy on her arrival in Oz in the 1939 “Wizard of Oz” movie. In 2007 he had predicted, “That movie will never die. It will go on long after the Munchkins have all passed away.” A wonderful story for troubled times, and now an upbeat musical version in revival at Kelsey Theatre, “The Wiz” lives on and offers some fine entertainment and a refreshing escape from the economic news of the day.

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