SAN DIEGO — If ya wanna just "ease on down" to the Theatre in Old Town, your eyes and ears will thank you.
An energetic International Company of United States International University students has taken over the barn-like space for the next two weeks with a bright, ambitious production of "The Wiz." Their performances may not live up to their high intentions, but no one can fault this group for lack of enthusiasm. Or terrific costumes and sets.
William F. Brown (book) and Charlie Smalls (music and lyrics) gave Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" soul in the mid-'70s. The high-pitched Munchkin command to "follow the yellow brick road," became a black idiom, a funky, rocked-out suggestion that Dorothy and friends ought to "ease on down the road," and the well-worn favorite was permanently updated.
The huge USIU cast features both black and white actors, but director David Larson has stayed true to the bone-bouncing rock, soul and gospel rhythms of "The Wiz."
Help comes from busy musicians and backup singers on a high platform at the back of the stage, behind layers of painted scrims and day-glo decorations. This wise placement easily conquers the Old Town theater's notorious sound problems, making the music, directed by Kerry Duse, and the vocals, guided by Roy Mote, primary factors in the production's success.
But the costumes designed by Lauren Lambie and Judy Ryerson are equally delightful--lots of color, glitter and whimsy that must have taken many hands and many hours to create.
No less time, expense and effort was spent on Kent Homchick's scenic design. His exuberant decorations feature riotous pinks, gaudy green mylar (for a hip Emerald City) and a beautiful scrim painting of Aunt Em's soon-destroyed farmhouse.
Visually, the production is as much fun as digging through a trunk of Las Vegas showgirl costumes, or fiddling with new gadgets in an overstocked toy store. There are lots of surprises to enjoy, even if the students have a little trouble pulling it all off smoothly.
When director Larson pulls out a shadow-play trick, or brings us Glenda the Good Witch on a royal palanquin, it's easy to forget about the sloppy backstage scurrying visible around the edge of a scrim.
The originality dims with the choreography by Carl Jablonski, who borrows too much from old TV stylings for such a fresh, youthful production. But the cast features several flashy dancers who compensate for their less skilled classmates and the stale choreography. Darron Morris demonstrates a keen athletic ability as the Monkey Captain, as do several others who move too quickly to be identified.
Jablonski's high-powered tornado dance, with his attempt to imitate the prop-savvy of the famous Mummenschanz troupe, is nearly invisible on a stage too darkly lit by John Sherwood's otherwise competent design.
As Dorothy, actress Andrea Griffith shines brightest when she opens her mouth to sing. Velma Austin, as the Good Witch of the North, Addaperle, is full of sass and dazzle as Glenda's sister, stealing every scene she pushes her shopping cart into.
Glen Carson, the Tinman, possesses a simply beautiful voice that shows absolutely no signs of rust, while Corey Robinson delights with a loose-limbed interpretation of the Scarecrow. White actor Bill Doyle has to work a little harder to keep up as the Cowardly Lion. When he calls Dorothy "little mama" there's something missing in the inflection that makeup just can't supply--but he's lovable anyway.
Arline Holliday, Bertine Piard and Stacy Diaz are literally a squeal as the adorable Munchkin trio, and slinky-seductive in their double roles as the hypnotic Poppies.
Catherine Sholty plays Evillene, Wicked Witch of the West, with broad strokes that work just fine until it's time for her hot butter impersonation, and then this loud-mouthed nasty simply fades away without so much as a whimper. Steven Paul fills the requirements for The Wiz, a man who does for the color green what Prince has done for purple.
But it's the story itself that surpasses all and proves again its timelessness. In many ways, the deep, spiritual message in Dorothy's journey, the realization that the power lies within--our answers are always there--comes through "The Wiz" more clearly than in the traditional version. Perhaps this is because love and respect motivated Brown and Smalls to rework the tale in the first place; they've stayed true to its heart, performing a wonderful service in helping us all to find it fresh again.
While USIU's production falls a little short in professional performances, it does measure up in spirit. "The Wiz" is a joyful entertainment, a bright bauble that children up to the age of about 97 will love.
"THE WIZ" Book by Wiliam F. Brown. Music and lyrics by Charles Smalls. Based on Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." Directed by David Larson. Choreography by Carl Jablonski. Scenic design by Kent Homchick. Costumes by Lauren Lambie, Judy Ryerson. Lighting design by John Sherwood. Music direction by Kerry Duse. Vocal direction by Roy Mote. Produced by Gordon Hilker. Associate producer is Jack Tygett. With Andrea Griffith, Corey Robinson, Glen Carson, Bill Doyle, Steven Paul, Velma Austin, Catherine Sholty, Walter Jones, Eric Davenport, Darron Morris, Sheila Winn, Arline Holliday, Bertine Piard, Stacy Diaz, David Brannen, Glean Lewis, Kirk Derby, Kenneth Dembo, Angela Blackledge, Misty Webb, Kim Spano, Andrea Hayes, Darcy White, Tom Vannucci. At 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday through March 9 at the Theatre in Old Town, 4040 Twiggs St.