Theatre review: The Wiz – this clever and funny update works

Once again full of its trademark infectious enthusiasm, the Fighting Chance Productions production of The Wiz follows its own yellow brick road with some clever updates and a couple of stand-out performances.

The cast of the Fighting Chance Productions presentation of The WizI must admit that when I first heard this community theatre group was going to bring what was originally a 1975 all-black version of the classic Frank L. Baum novel to Vancouver, I thought perhaps Artistic Director Ryan Mooney might have ingested a few two many tainted Munchkin lollipops.  But oddly enough this musical, despite its telling subtitle “The Super Soul Musical ‘Wonderful Wizard of Oz’”, still works.

Right out of the gate we know we’re not in Kansas anymore as Director Mooney forgoes the customary tornado for a television to transport Dorothy to the Land of Oz.  Hip-hop dancing Munchkins, a Lady Gaga inspired Good Witch of the North, plus a whole slew of other pop-culture references, including a very funny impersonation by Jenny Moase as the Wicked Witch of the West, helps get us past the fact the musical was originally written for and about a particular audience.

But despite its not surprising lack of African Canadians on stage, that doesn’t mean the show is completely devoid of any colour.  Arielle Tuliao, Jennifer Suratos and Sean Parsons as Dorothy, Aunt Em and the Lion respectively plus Hal Rogers and Louisa Phung in the ensemble add some welcome diversity to the production.

The quartet at the centre of the story all do fine jobs in their roles, each having their own moments in the emerald green limelight.  Lucas Blaney captures the loose-limbed Scarecrow with ease and it was fun to watch as his innocent vacant look remained until he actually receives his brain.  Nick Fontaine as the Tin Man, while maybe a little rough around the edges, still pulls out a beautiful rendition of “What Would I Do If I Could Feel”.  Sean Parson’s portrayal of the Lion as some sort of Tim Curry sweet transvestite outcast from Rocky Horror brought another fresh spin.  Finally, Tuliao does a nice job as Dorothy and as she sings of “Home” in the show’s finale I saw not a few in the audience wiping away tears.

But while the central foursome does their characters proud, it was Suratos in the dual role as Aunt Em and the great and powerful Wiz who nails both her songs and characters.  From her opening number “The Feeling We Once Had” as Aunt Em, to the inspirational “Believe in Yourself” towards the end as The Wiz, Suratos proves her versatility and talent.  Her impersonation of a certain famous talk show diva had me laughing at loud.

Making me really sit-up and take notice though was Emily Canavan who makes her appearance late in the show as Glinda the Good Witch.  Her show-stopping “If You Believe” nearly had me on my feet.

Choreographer Dawn Ewen once again gives her cast a work out and I continue to admire that she is not willing to dumb-down her choreography to the lowest common denominator.  This cast works hard under Ewen’s direction and it translates well.  Not quite as successful are what appears to be those non-choreographed crowd scenes where it seems at times like a free-for-all.

Of course, along with its trademark infectious enthusiasm, Fighting Chance Productions once again has what is quickly becoming another trademark for the group: sound issues.  I know I may sound like a broken record here but when musical theatre is your thing, sound is mission critical.

Another bare bones set, this time set designer Amanda Larder pushes the envelope for Fighting Chance with a turntable and while I admire the group’s ambition, it appears that so much energy was expended on creating the turntable the rest of the set design was an afterthought.  Costume designer Karen Van Es uses the greens of Oz to great effect throughout and gives each of the four main characters just enough of a hint as to who they are without going to the extremes of the movie versions.

Clever, funny and with a few outstanding performances, this production should be enough to make you want to ease on down to Performance Works.  Even without a Toto anywhere to be seen.

3 1/2 of 5 Stars The Wiz

Book by William F Brown.  Music and Lyrices by Charlie Smalls.  Directed by Ryan Mooney.  Musical Direction by Christopher King.  A Fighting Chance Productions presentation.  On stage at Performance Works on Granville Island through April 30, 2011.

Visit http://fightingchanceproductions.ca for tickets and information.

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