It was an audacious notion in 1975 (well, actually 1974 and at the Morris Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, to be technical about the world premiere) to take the ultimate white children's fantasy story, L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, one which had enshrined in a very white and very classic film, and do it black. As the world knows, however, in this instance audacity paid off. Drawing on specifically African American strengths and traditions of music and dance, the show enjoyed a good four years on Broadway. And Toby's of Baltimore's production is a solid reminder of why it was such a hit.
Of course the structure of the tale is a hero's quest, although in a way closer to Baum than to the 1939 MGM adaptation. In the latter, Judy Garland's Dorothy inhabits a Kansas that has some problems (giving rise to the sense of longing in Garland's song OVER THE RAINBOW after all), and what she brings back from her experiences in some ways enables her better to deal with it. In Baum and in The Wiz, Kansas is a happy ideal place ("a place where there is love overflowing"), and the tale is mostly about a determined young woman finding the way back to where she belongs. In fact, there are two songs devoted to demonstrating how loved Dorothy is in Kansas, and how much she wants to get back.
Naturally, Dorothy brings back something of value for her Kansas life, Good Witch Glinda's sung lesson to BELIEVE IN YOURSELF, perhaps particularly valuable, as critic Frank Rich suggested, in the African American community of its era, though hardly less stirring for other audiences. But for Baum and the creators of The Wiz (William Brown, book, and Charlie Smalls, songs) this is a story about restoring a lost security, not about forging one where it had not been before.
It is also truer to Baum in conveying the sense that all the menaces, the bad witches, flying monkeys, etc. are comical. Baum reports their doings in a deadpan, droll way. In The Wiz they are presented as show business tropes, and we are all in on the joke. The Wicked Witch (Kelli Blackwell here) is a broad parody of a really grumpy boss, and not the terrifying and nightmare-inducing green-skinned Billie Burke of the movie. The scarecrow (Brian Jeffrey Daniels) is not subject to existential self-doubt over his alleged lack of brains (although he does dance in an amazing double-jointed-seeming way). The point of the Tin Man's (Marquise White) being rusted up when we first see him is that he is ideally positioned to do a sort of thawing-out dance (SLIDE SOME OIL TO ME). And so on.
What really puts the show across, however, is the songs. The wealth of black pop of the mid-70s is on display here, including power-pop ballads (THE FEELING WE ONCE HAD) and disco (EMERALD CITY BALLET), with definite echoes of the Shaft Theme in the TORNADO BALLET. And here this great music is put across by pros: Dorothy (Ashley Johnson) has a phenomenal voice and a winsome manner, good for a longing-song (SOON AS I GET HOME) and an anthem (HOME), and the three witches (Blackwell, CrystAl Freeman as Glinda, and Shayla Lowe as Addaperale) all have the chops to do more mature and comical turns with their big songs. The Wiz himself, Jonathan Randle, is no slouch singing sardonically (SO YOU WANTED TO MEET THE WIZARD) - not to mention doing a great comic turn when, even unmasked, he manages, without the aid of real magic but armed with limitless chutzpah, to fulfill the quests of Dorothy's companions.
As usual with Toby's, the "fixings," including the costumes (Lawrence B. Munsey) and the pit band (led by Cedric D. Lyles) are superb. And of course this is no Rent: I was able to bring a youthful companion without a moment's hesitation. A marvelous time will be had by all.
The Wiz, Book by William F. Brown, Music & Lyrics by Charlie Smalls, directed by Kevin McAllister, through April 28 at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Baltimore, 5625 O'Donnell Street, Baltimore, MD 21224. Tickets $51.50 to $57.00, www.tobysdinnertheatre.com, 410-649-1660, 1-866-TOBYS, and Ticketmaster.