The Wiz - Live!, NBC
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A live performance (on December 3, 2015) of a musical play based on the 1974 stage musical of the same name, which itself was based on L. Frank Baum's 1900 novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." The book has, of course, been adapted numerous times, and the musical "The Wiz" was made into a movie in 1978. I must have seen at least a bit of it on TV at some point, but I'm not sure if I've ever seen the whole movie. I've definitely always wanted to, though. And it's nice to have a chance to see this latest iteration as NBC's third annual live musical. I definitely liked it more than last year's musical (Peter Pan), and... while I was watching it, I was thinking I probably liked it more than the first one (The Sound of Music). But ultimately, I think I liked it just slightly less than that one. (Though it's possible if I remembered the first one better, I'd say I liked this one more, I'm not sure.) If I did like "Sound of Music" better, it's only because I'm more familiar with the songs from that than I am with the songs from "The Wiz." In fact, there's only one song in this musical that was particularly familiar to me; even if I've never really seen the whole story before, "Ease on Down the Road" is actually quite nostalgic, to me. And... maybe a couple of other songs sounded vaguely familiar, but most of the songs were completely unfamiliar to me. They were all okay, though I liked some more than others. I also want to say I'm not sure how similar to or different from either the original stage musical or the 1978 movie this production is, in terms of the story. (Certainly there were some modern references thrown in that couldn't have been included in any 70s version, and I enjoyed those. But there may have been other changes that I couldn't be sure were changes.) Anyway, there were some familiar people in the cast of this version, including Queen Latifah as the Wiz; Amber Riley (whom I know from Glee) as Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North; David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion; Mary J. Blige as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West; Ne-Yo as the Tin Man; and... I think everyone else was unknown to me. (Well, Common played a bouncer/gatekeeper, but I really only know his name, not so much his work, I'm afraid. And actually I only barely know Ne-Yo's work; though it was fairly recently that I really enjoyed his cover of "Friend Like Me" from Aladdin.) But I also want to say that Cirque du Soleil provided some awesome performances.
So, now that all that's out of the way, I can talk about the plot. It begins with Dorothy, Toto, and a few farmhands in Kansas. Then Dorothy's Aunt Em comes along and talks to her. (Uncle Henry isn't in this production.) I really liked the fact that Dorothy was upset about her parents having died, and her having had to move from Nebraska to Kansas to live with her aunt. A very nice and realistic touch that isn't in the more familiar 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. Anyway, after a song from Aunt Em, there's a tornado that transports Dorothy to Oz. (Unlike the 1939 movie, Toto stays behind in Kansas.) Her house lands on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her. (Her name was Evamene, I guess.) At first the Munchkins seem upset (sort of putting Dorothy on trial for murder), but it soon becomes apparent they're happy about it. Then Addaperle shows up, convinces Dorothy to put on Evamene's silver slippers, and gives her some advice about going to ask the Wiz if he could send her home (which Dorothy thought of as Omaha, rather than Kansas), and about avoiding some dangers along the way. So, Dorothy will have to ease on down the yellow brick road to Emerald City. Along the way, she befriends a Scarecrow (who needs a brain). He's being persecuted by some crows, but Dorothy frees him. Then they meet a Tin Man (who needs a heart). He has a tragic backstory that involves Evamene and another woman. Then they meet a Lion (who needs courage). Dorothy convinces each of them that the Wiz will be able to help them, so they join her on her journey. (Incidentally, the Tin Man's song, "Slide Some Oil to Me," was my favorite of all of Dorothy's friends' introductory songs. The Scarecrow's song, "You Can't Win," was actually more like the crows' song; it was from the 1978 movie, rather than the stage musical.)
Before long, the four of them lose sight of the Yellow Brick Road, and split up to look for it again. While Dorothy's alone, she sees her deceased mother, who wants Dorothy to give her the silver slippers. But the Tin Man prevents her from making that mistake, as of course it wasn't really her mother. I guess it was a "kalidah," one of the things Addaperle had warned her about, which were like shapeshifters. Then there's a battle against a bunch of kalidahs. After escaping from them, our heroes encounter a field of antagonistic poppies, which in this version are anthropomorphic, and... I guess the Lion defeats them by dancing with them? Finally they get to Emerald City, which is like a nightclub, with a bouncer out front who doesn't want to let them in, until he finds out about Dorothy's slippers. There are a bunch of people inside who warn them against seeing the Wiz, who they claim is dangerous, even though they've apparently never actually seen him. (While they weren't very helpful, I thought they were pretty cool.) But finally Dorothy and the others do get in to see the Wiz. At first they see a giant mechanical (and rather menacing) head, but soon they meet the Wiz himself, who is even more menacing. He doesn't want to grant their wishes, but a sad song from the Tin Man apparently convinces him... but only if they kill the Wicked Witch of the West. None of Dorothy's friends want to do that, but she convinces them with another song. ("We Got It," which was new to this production.)
Then we see a factory that I guess used to be in Evamene's territory, but since her death, Evillene had taken over, enslaving all the Winkies who work there. (Or maybe it hadn't been Evamene's territory, but I did get the impression that Evillene only took it over after Evamene's death. I dunno.) Anyway, Evillene has one of my favorite songs in the production, "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News." Which is, of course, immediately followed by one of the Winkies bringing her the news that Dorothy and the others have been sent to kill her. So she sends her "winged warriors" to capture them (rather than flying monkeys). And we learn that Evillene is terrified of water (which makes her ultimate fate way more predictable than it was in the 1939 movie). Anyway, she makes Dorothy and the others slaves for awhile, but Dorothy finally throws a bucket of water on her when she threatens to kill her friends. And of course the Winkies are all happy to be free, and break into a very upbeat song, "A Brand New Day." But when our heroes return to Emerald City, they find the bouncer has been ordered not to let them in. Scarecrow comes up with an idea to trick him, though, and they end up discovering the Wiz wasn't what (he) seemed, and can't help them, as he'd promised. (Aside from not really being a wizard, he was actually a woman, and Dorothy is quick to point out that there's nothing wrong with that.) Anyway, the Wiz tells Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion that they already have enough brain, heart, and courage. And she reveals that she's from Nebraska, herself, and they convince her to take Dorothy home in her hot air balloon. But at the last minute, Dorothy decides she doesn't want to go to Nebraska, after all. (Personally, I would think that once she got there, it wouldn't be that hard to get to Kansas, but... that's not how the story goes.) Addaperle shows up, and Dorothy says she's realized home is Kansas, so that's where she wants to go. Then Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, shows up, and tells her how to get home. (She claims, via song, that it's about believing in herself, though considering it still requires Dorothy to click her heels together three times, as in the 1939 movie, I'm not sure how much that really means.) And then there's a very brief reunion between Dorothy, Toto, and Aunt Em. And the movie ends after a mere 2 hours and 45 minutes, which was 15 minutes earlier than expected. (Where did those minutes go? It's some kind of magic, I tell you!)
Anyway... I didn't mention all the songs in the production. There were several others here, but I also gather several from the original version were excluded from this production. I'm not really sure what else to say, except that I really enjoyed the whole thing. Good music, great visuals, a fair amount of humor, and of course plenty of heart (even if the story seemed rather too squished together to really get to know any of the characters all that well, so the love Dorothy and her friends have for each other feels a bit forced). I still like the 1939 movie a lot better, but... this interpretation of the story was definitely a fun change of pace. It has some very clever differences (including some lampshade-hanging of some of the story's absurdities), and a more modern and slightly more adult sensibility, while still being an endearingly silly/trippy fantasy story.