Thursday, September 28, 2006

Theater: THE WIZ

One of the hardest things about not living full-time in San Diego anymore (besides the obvious—like seeing family and friends, and oh…living in San Diego) is the inability to attend the entire La Jolla Playhouse season.

In previous blogs, as well as the old Crystal Says… from the main website, I’ve written about how great this arts program is. (BTW, you can check the Crystal Says… archives for lots of movie, TV, and pop culture reviews.) Every new play, musical, or “miscellaneous offering” is an event. I’ve seen things like JERSEY BOYS to HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING go from Playhouse infancy to Broadway success. I’ve also seen some performances that I wouldn’t normally attend because they wouldn’t jump out at me in a weekend newspaper listing—though they ended up being some of my favorites. Programs like PETER AND WENDY, in which one woman did about forty voices while manipulating puppets in J.M. Barrie’s heartbreaking tale. (Boy, there are lots of parentheses today, but I have to interject that the pure, stripped-down version of PETER PAN is one of the saddest, most profound stories out there.)

This time I got to attend another musical that will probably end up on Broadway before all is said and done: a revival of THE WIZ. The bottom line is that I very much enjoyed it, but my reaction was definitely on the low side of what the rest of the audience was feeling. They were absolutely gleeful at the end, and the applause for the singing, dancing, and story was well deserved, though I was more reserved because I had a sort of been-there-done-that feeling from watching too many episodes of SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE and lots and lots of previous musicals.

Barring that minor point, there were incredibly high points in the production. The director, Des McAnuff, is the man responsible for THE WHO’S TOMMY, HOW TO SUCCEED…, and JERSEY BOYS. His take on THE WIZ didn’t include making Dorothy a schoolteacher, as she was in the cult movie, but to keep her young and use her journey to Oz as an allegory for a country girl’s fears of a big city, as well as the trials of growing up. Accordingly, the brilliant set design and costumes did most of the impressing, IMHO. The set features a “yellow brick” road (actually black and silver) that winds through the audience, plus a theater-in-the-round seating style. The intention was to conjure a “rock concert”/urban feel, and there were hanging screens that alternately showed surreal transmissions of the actors singing on stage and atmospheric images supporting the action (as during the twister). I wasn’t crazy about the performance footage because it made me think of a cheap cable-TV channel, not a concert. But I did appreciate the statement those screens were making: technology in this WIZ is prevalent, something that decays and separates while nonetheless allowing society to grow and come together. And I loved the rest of it: the steel-skeleton overhang that allowed the performers to play to all sides of the audience. How about the costumes? Well, you’d have to see the Tech-Geek’s-wet-dream gleam of a Tin Man or the Marie-Antoinette-wears-cotton-candy version of Glinda to believe it. The wardrobe is symbolically important to each character, like the bling-master of a Cowardly Lion who wears cornrows and needs to touch up his bleach job. Also, we’ve got a man playing Toto in the Oz portion of the show, and when he uses the wheels on his sneakers to fly around the “road,” it shows the dog’s exuberance without even a line of dialogue (or a bark).

Can I also add that David Alan Grier (IN LIVING COLOR) played the Wiz? Sweet.

Basically, if you’re in the UCSD area, try to get tickets. It’s highly enjoyable and wonderfully creative. Decent for kids, too.

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