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Taking a different road

Coming out from behind its '70s curtain, `The Wiz' gets a post-9/11 book and a high-tech look in LaJolla. There's even a Toto Cam.

October 01, 2006|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

La Jolla — ORDINARILY, actors don't want to die onstage -- unless, of course, they can do it literally and splendidly. And is there a splashier demise than the industrial-strength denouement of the Wicked Witch of the West when Dorothy douses her with water and she melts into a watery corpse?

Evillene, the witch's pesky persona in the urbanized musical "The Wiz," will put that image to the test when she makes her high-tech exit at the La Jolla Playhouse. The "reimagined" multicultural production opens next Sunday.

During a recent rehearsal in the Mandell Weiss Forum, Evillene was heading for her death. The black-box space is tucked behind the Mandell Weiss Theatre, which was filled with workers putting flesh on a high-tech environmental set designed to take the audience inside the land of Oz.

At the suggestion of La Jolla's Tony-winning artistic director, Des McAnuff, William F. Brown reworked his book of the original musical, taking Evillene's water phobia to its logical conclusion. "Soap does not smell good to Evillene because she associates it with death," McAnuff told the cast. Evillene doesn't bathe. She doesn't brush her teeth. Her eyes bulge. And, in a dry rasp, she alternately bellows at and smarmily cajoles Dorothy while trying to steal her silver slippers. She is, in short, icky.

"She's only a page away from dying," McAnuff said.

"I know," E. Faye Butler, who plays Evillene, responded brightly. "I love to die."

Chances are you've seen the wicked witch die at least once in your life, either in the 1975 stage or 1978 film versions of "The Wiz," staged with African American casts, or the 1939 MGM classic starring Judy Garland. As David Alan Grier, who plays the Wiz in La Jolla, puts it, "When you have a story like 'The Wizard of Oz,' there's nobody who's going to come into the theater who doesn't know the story. Maybe some recently arrived Croatian refugee. It's like Santa Claus."

But McAnuff, whose production of "Jersey Boys" won this year's Tony for best musical, is determined that his "Wiz" will be nothing like anything anyone has seen before. The show boasts new choreography, a built-from-scratch set with scaffolding and trusses using six miles of steel, cutting-edge technology and a book updated with the vernacular of 2006.

In this "Wiz," Dorothy (Nikki M. James) is back in Kansas after her disastrous move to a blighted cityscape in the 1978 film, but this time she watches 500 channels in a simple wood-frame house affixed with a satellite dish. Toto, played by dancer Albert Blaise Cattafi when Dorothy hits Oz, sees the world through Toto Cam, a camera in his hat that projects the pup's-eye view on LED screens.

The production is among the most ambitious ever staged in La Jolla, although McAnuff declines to divulge the cost. Most of the cast and creative team are Broadway veterans: Tituss Burgess ("Jersey Boys" in La Jolla and on Broadway) as the Lion, Michael Benjamin Washington (the recent revival of "La Cage aux Folles") as the Tinman and Rashad Naylor ("Hairspray") as Scarecrow. Uncle Henry is played by Orville Mendoza ("Pacific Overtures"), Valarie Pettiford (nominated for a Tony for "Fosse") doubles as Aunt Em and Glinda, and Heather Lee (the 2003 revival of "Gypsy") appears as Addaperle. If any show was tailor-made for New York, this one would seem to be it.

But McAnuff is reluctant to comment on the show's prospects for the Great White Way. He insists he's not looking past the Southern California run, which ends Nov. 12.

"We never use the B-word," he says. "Occasionally, we use Bombay or Bora Bora or something else in a facetious manner, but we never do use the B-word."

That sort of theatrical superstition is probably well placed, given the uncertainties of the marketplace. Still, McAnuff has a track record for helping to reinvigorate the American musical. Beyond "Jersey Boys' " recent triumph, he won Tonys for directing 1985's "Big River" and 1993's "The Who's Tommy." His credits also include 1995's "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," among other noteworthy productions.

So while they may not be talking about New York in La Jolla, New York is keeping an eye out for McAnuff's latest project, his penultimate show as artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse. "There's buzz in New York about it," says Jack Viertel, creative director of Jujamcyn, which owns and operates five Broadway houses. "A lot of people, including me, will come out to see it. Des is a first-rate theater artist. Whether he wins a Tony or not, we all take him extremely seriously."

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