Ease on down the road at Toby’s Dinner Theatre
Wednesday, 06 March 2013 12:58

The Wiz runs now through April 28

by Nicole Rodman

    It’s a familiar story with a funky twist as Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore presents The Wiz now through April 28.
    A soulful retelling of L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the play features an all African-American cast telling the well-known story of Dorothy and her tornado-driven trip to the magical land of Oz.
    First brought to the stage at Baltimore’s Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in 1974, by 1975 the play was  a bonfide Broadway smash, earning seven Tony awards, including Best Musical.
    Now, the capable cast of Toby’s Dinner Theatre is bringing the upbeat musical to life once more.
    The play begins on a small Kansas farm where Dorothy, ably portrayed by Ashley Johnson, lives with her Aunt Em (Jesaira Glover) and Uncle Henry (Jonathan Randle).
    As Dorothy, Johnson brings a believable innocence to the role that clashes wonderfully with the hectic, psychadelic world she is about to enter.
    Dorothy’s idyllic lifestyle is abruptly interrupted, however, when a tornado comes along and sweeps her to a magical land known as Oz.
    Sweet, innocent and earnest, Dorothy soon finds herself surrounded by a group of colorfully clad Munchkins and the Good Witch of the North, Addaperle (Shayla Lowe).
    As Addaperle, Lowe is a comic delight, portraying the witch as an glorified party magician whose heart is bigger than her magical talent.
   

Confused and homesick, Dorothy wants only to go home. Told by Addaperle that the Wiz is the only one who can help her, Dorothy sets off on a reluctant journey along the yellow-brick road.
    While the sets are minimal (mostly a series of painted backdrops and a lighted wall), many of the most important setpieces and props are evoked by actors in costume.
    The yellow-brick road, for example, is portrayed by two actors in yellow body suits, serving as both a setpiece as well as backup singers and dancers.
    In this way, the road is not only an integral part of the storyline, but a character in its own right.
    Soon, Dorothy stumbles across the Scarecrow  (Bryan Daniels), whose greatest wish is to have the brain he sorely lacks.
    As the bumbling Scarecrow, Daniels is a talented physical comedian who keeps the audience howling with laughter with every line.
    His proficient dance skills are also on full display in the funky musical number “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday.”
    Inviting the Scarecrow to come along with her to see the Wiz, Dorothy and her new companion resume their journey to the show’s most famous tune, “Ease on Down the Road.”
    Their revelry is soon halted, however, when they come across the badly-rusted Tinman (Marquise White).
    Though he effectively portrays the stiff, reserved Tinman, White’s real talent is in his astounding singing voice.
    With a deep, rich baratone that fills the entire theatre, White is easily one of the best vocalist in the entire production.
    His soulful rendition of “Slide Some Oil to Me” is a delight that had many audience members on their feet clapping.
    Having rescued the rusted Tinman, the three companions prepare to set off once more when they come across the Lion (Tobias Young).
    Though he puts on a gruff exterior, the Lion soon proves himself to be nothing more than a furry coward.
    With a raspy singing voice and a personality that is, by turns, manic and sweet, Young embodies the Lion fully.
    With the full ensemble finally together, Dorothy and her motley crew soon make their way to the Emerald City, where they meet the ecclectic citizens clad in a revolving mix of bright green, red and gold costumes.
    While the cast is a delight throughout the production, the real star of the show is the costuming, which, more than any other element, evokes the whimsical, psychadelic funkiness that is the land of Oz.
    As costume designer, the supremely talented Lawrence B. Munsey is more than up to the challenge of creating dazzlingly colorful costumes that, in a way, upstage the actors that wear them.
    Finally, Dorothy and her friends get into meet the Wiz (Jonathan Randle).
    Randle is, indeed, a force, effectively portraying the Wiz as a man made powerful by the sheer force of his charm and personality.
    As Act One comes to a close, the Wiz agrees to grant the foursome’s wishes if they complete the difficult task of killing Evillene (Kelli Blackwell), the Wicked Witch of the West.
    Act Two begins in Evillene’s castle, by far the most elaborate of the show’s sparse sets.
    As Evillene, Blackwell is delciously vile, able to infuse the role with a physical evil that is in stark contrast to the upbeat cheeriness of the preceding scenes.
    Again, costuming is effective as Evillene’s black and red vinyl dominatrix-style outfit personifies her evil nature.
    Like her presence, Blackwell’s voice is powerful as she sings the sassy,  “No Bad News.”
    While Evillene is successful in capturing Dororthy and her friends, she is soon defeated, leading to the joyous anthem “Everybody Rejoice.”
    The celebration is short-lived, however, as the foursome soon realize that the wonderful Wiz may have bitten off more than he could chew.
    While Randle’s Wiz is a strong personality, his musical chops come through as he performs the slow ballad “Believe in Yourself.”
    While a stark contrast from his former persona, Randle is equally belivable when performing a more tender, intimate scene.
    Just as things seem their darkest for Dorothy, Glinda, the Good Witch (Crystal Freeman) shows up to show Dororthy that the power to get home was within her the whole time.
    Though a short role, Freeman takes full advatage of her time as Glinda, belting out an impressive rendition of “Believe in Yourself” that sets her apart as one of the ensemble’s best vocalists.
    As Dorothy prepares to return to her home, she sings a bittersweet ballad called “Home.”
    The song is a showcase for the talented Johnson, who throws her whole physicality into the wrenching, powerful number.
    An upbeat, high-energy musical with heart, The Wiz is a tour-de-force for the talented cast and crew of Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore.
    While the show runs until April 28, the theatre has not yet announced the rest of shows for their 2013 season.
    According to Toby’s press representative David Gregory, the rest of the season is still being worked out and will be announced soon.
    As Gregory explained, a number of elements, such as royalities for each of the prospective shows, must be worked out before the full season can be announced.
    For more information, visit Toby’s website at www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.