The Wiz at City CenterThis afternoon I saw The Wiz on stage for the first time. This production is part of City Center Encores! Summer Stars, a series dedicated to presenting Broadway classics in limited-run productions (last year was Damn Yankees and its inaugural year brought the acclaimed Gypsy with Patti LuPone).

This is the first time The Wiz has received a major NYC production since a brief Broadway revival in 1984, which survived for 7 previews and 13 performances. The original 1974 production was a huge hit, running 15 previews and 1,672 performances before it closed in 1979. Check out the cast from the original: Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, Hinton Battle as Scarecrow, Andre DeShields as The Wiz,. That production was also the Broadway debut for Phylicia Rashad (back then Phylicia Ayers-Allen) as a munchkin and field mouse and an understudy for Glinda. The show was nominated for eight Tonys and won seven, including Best Musical and Best Score.

Most people, however, probably got their first sample of The Wiz from the 1978 movie version with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsy Russell, Lena Horne and Richard Pryor. There are also the hit songs from the show like “Easy on Down The Road,” “Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day)” and “Home.”

City Center's "The Wiz"

City Center did itself proud with this production.  It was great to see LaChanze back on stage in the dual role of Aunt Em and Glinda. She’s on stage at the beginning and the end, but her few minutes her outstanding.  Orlando Jones makes his New York stage debut (and I believe his musical debut) as The Wiz and he was quite up to the task of being all-powerful before being found out as a fraud. James Monroe Iglehart is wonderful as the lion as is Joshua Henry as Tinman. The standout in the needy trio is Christian Dante White as the Scarecrow. He belted great on “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday” and his movements throughout the show were extraordinary as he kept his lanky frame in full scarecrow mode.

I have to call out Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography. He’s a Tony Winner for In The Heights and nominated for 9 to 5. Here his work is extraordinary. The Tornado Ballet is amazing. You get the dancers making the on stage tornado, tearing apart the set, repositioning it and transporting Dorothy to Oz. Amazing! The movement of the yellow brick road was also choreographed to stunning effect as was the moment the slaves were freed from Evillene. There are no awards for stagings at City Center, but Blankenbuehler deserves all the good notices he’ll get for this show.

The clinker in this show is, unfortunately, Ashanti as Dorothy. She sings the role beautifully, no doubt about it. But her acting is not up to par with her co-stars. When she’s not singing, she’s got the same, mostly blank, look on her face. This is not good for the person who is at the center of the show. There’s a lot of great stuff going on around her and the show is still a massive dose of fun and worth the price of admission. If this is going to make a leap to Broadway, which I think it could becuase so much of it is in fantastic shape, it’s going to need a much stronger leading lady for Dorothy.

The Wiz continues for another week at City Center. If you’re in the city and want to have a great time, go check it out!

Meanwhile, you can check out this Broadway.com behind the scenes look at the production.