On Thursday night an exuberant, inventive “The Wiz Live!” breathed new life into the notion of full-scale musicals on live TV with a happy serving of 70s soul and R&B, with a 2015 twist. Starring a nice mix of pop music heavyweights, Hollywood stars and Broadway veterans, the show had a heart and playfulness that was missing from previous live TV musicals like “The Sound of Music Live!” with Carrie Underwood and “Peter Pan Live!”.
On top of that, it even came in under three hours. 12 cameras on Long Island captured even higher stakes with complicated costumes, fire bursts, LED screens, a live dog, smoke and Cirque Du Soleil acrobats in bouncy prosthetic stilts.
Also in a nice touch, Stephanie Mills, the original Broadway Dorothy, played Auntie Em. The TV musical starred 19-year-old newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy, who got stronger as the night went on and who crushed the song’s finale, “Home;” a strong Queen Latifah as the Wiz with real stage presence; Amber Riley, a very blue good witch of the North who destroyed “He’s the Wizard;” and a perfectly evil Mary J. Blige as the Wicked Witch of the West.
However it was the guys on Thursday who really shined: Ne-Yo, as a winning Tin Man, moving fluidly despite a rusty suit, who beautifully delivered “To Be Able to Feel;” Elijah Kelley as an athletic, loose-limbed Scarecrow, who gave us a funky “You Can’t Win” while hoisted on a pole; and a dreadlocked, extremely furry (but funny) David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion.
After an underwhelming start in the Kansas countryside, the show got into a groove once the four pals eased on down the road, as they had real chemistry and each served the piece respectfully. The live event was directed with good cheer and genuine spirit by Tony Award-winner Kenny Leon, and mixed songs from the stage and film.
Choreographer Fatima Robinson’s dancing was modern and light, as when she created a fantastic visual introduction to Emerald City complete with voguing, like a party at Lady Gaga’s. Costumer Paul Tazewell’s geometric and colorful designs in Munchkinland gave way to scary crows, nasty flying monkeys and steampunk workers.
Set designer Derek McLane was strongest after the tiny model houses in Kansas. This version of “The Wiz” is being planned for an extended life on Broadway and this telecast will definitely boost that effort.
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