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Promising new “The Wiz” sometimes loses its way

Few works have captured the attention of a mainstream black audience, especially the 1975 Broadway musical “The Wiz,” which had music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls (and others) and a book by William F. Brown. “The Wiz” was a success at that year’s Tony Awards and starred Stephanie Mills and, years later, the incomparable André DeShields, who proudly showed off his costume from the title role. And three of the show’s greatest songs, “Ease On Down the Road,” “Home” and “A Brand New Day,” have been recorded and chorused for nearly 50 years. “Home” even rose to the top of the R&B charts.

“The Wiz” returns to Chicago in an all-new production to run on Broadway, with some additions by Amber Ruffin; this is likely an attempt to both freshen up the storytelling and alleviate current concerns over the late Brown being white. Although he is quite sensitive to racial issues in his work. You only had to listen to the overture at the Cadillac Palace Theater on Wednesday night to understand the commercial viability of the project. Many shows need to win over a skeptical audience, but this one comes with such good will towards the title that you can sense that the audience not only wants the show to succeed, but elevates it in the most practical of ways.

In most respects, then, this new production of “The Wiz” is a pre-Broadway tryout (another “Boop! The Musical” is coming next week). But this is also a pre-Broadway tour, far from an unknown, as Broadway star Wayne Brady has been announced to join the show once it reaches San Francisco. Alan Mingo Jr. is a very capable and talented actor as the current Wiz, but Brady’s absence from Chicago is still unfortunate given the amount of work that still needs to be done here to ensure that a very viable new approach to this rightfully beloved show achieves its goal A situation. full potential.

The strengths of director Schele Williams’s new production, scheduled to open on Broadway in April, include a rich performance by longtime outstanding (and here underutilized) Broadway veteran Deborah Cox (“Jekyll & Hyde”) as Glinda; A groundbreaking turn from Phillip Johnson Richardson as the Tin Man, who creaks across the stage, waking up the production and providing a joint-rattling delight all night long; Hannah Beachler’s (“Black Panther”) design is a sleek, sleek, and always fascinating and unconventional design that leans into the show’s vaunted place in Black Broadway history, and some exciting choreography from JaQuel when allowed to really focus Knight is the famous man behind the moves in Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video. Sharen Davis’ costumes are also gorgeous, a riot of color and imagination.

Problems include the director’s lack of focus on what dance can do in this show, inconsistent pacing (“The Wiz” needs to slow down and this production is way too long), a surprisingly dull crossover between Kansas and Oz, mediocre. Vocal reinforcement and a hesitant, emotionally impenetrable lead artist in Nichelle Lewis stars as Dorothy, who is blessed with every shade of vocal talent but relegates most of her dialogue offstage and has a lot to accomplish in this pivotal role.

This is Dorothy’s quest, after all, and as everyone steps aside for the show-stopping “Home” in Act 2, 11, Lewis must command the entire theater with the strength and depth of his soul. heart. This will require much more work. But “The Wiz” wouldn’t work without that payoff.

Overall, this show needs to lean more into its willing audience. Longtime Chicago actor Melody A. Betts, who plays Aunt Em/Aunt Evillene, demonstrates how to do this with Dorothy in the first scene with just the line, “I’m looking for the person you think you’re talking to,” but the show comes around and goes about it. Sometimes She reaches out, sometimes she seems to disappear within herself. The previous chapters are stuff that works, of course; “’The Wiz’ is a fun spoof and a celebration of home, community and friendship. There are a lot of big-hearted actors on stage, including Avery Wilson as the Scarecrow and Kyle Ramar Freeman as the Lion, but they haven’t yet been as prominent as this material warrants.

I think one of the unresolved issues here is how contemporary to make this show: I think embrace a kind of cool, retro modernity, hook Beyoncé fans with Knight’s moves, add more of Ruffin’s witty one-liners, and pay loving homage to Beyoncé. singular history of the show.

And then drop the whole thing into the lap of what I suspect will be one eager viewer after another.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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cjones5@chicagotribune.com

Review: “The Wiz” (3 stars)

When: until December 10

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes

Tickets: $55-$195 at 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com

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