It's a good thing that almost everyone who sees The Wiz at Cain Park will arrive fully armed with the story of Dorothy, Toto, and the wicked witch. Because if they didn't, it would be damn hard to figure out what the hell is happening onstage.
This adaptation of the classic The Wizard of Oz first hit Broadway more than 30 years ago, updated with an all-black cast and R&B-infused songs by Charlie Smalls. The intervening years have seen this interpretation go from bold to bland, and the book by William F. Brown has not improved with age.
All the basic elements and characters of the story are the same in this version, but executed quickly and in miniature. We are never allowed to really bond with Dorothy on her magical journey or shiver at the dastardly antics of the evil witch, which undercuts some of the tunes that are meant to lift and inspire ("To Be Able to Feel," "Believe in Yourself").
That said, the actors who play Dot and her motley trio of traveling companions in this mixed-race Cain Park production do their utmost to wrench this material out of the mediocre. As Dorothy, Malika Petty is cute and fresh, even though her powerful voice sometimes skates slightly out of control.
Burly Darryl Lewis has a compelling stage presence that nicely plays against his persona as the meek and cowardly lion. And Nathan A. Lilly exudes "heartless" soul as the ever-rusting Tinman. Although why this man of metal doesn't have taps on his shoes for his dance steps is a mystery.
Unfortunately, on this night the players' amplified singing voices were often submerged by the orchestra, rendering many of the not-so-familiar lyrics an exercise in lip-reading.
Once in Munchkinland, Dorothy meets the little folks, who are costumed colorfully and cleverly by Russ Borski, and seated on rolling stools. Unfortunately, director Pierre-Jacques Brault has the diminutive ones speak in a piercing screech that is often indecipherable.
Other standouts in the cast include Dan Call, who chews the scenery with relish as a drag-show-emcee version of the good witch Addaperle, and Colleen Longshaw as Glinda, who nails her solo "A Rested Body Is a Rested Mind." But Kelvette Beacham never manages to conjure the appropriate level of nastiness in the role of wicked Evillene.
As the Wiz, Kyle Primous (who also doubles as Uncle Henry) has style to spare, but his second-act appearance, just after peeing in the "Throne Room" commode, gives a whole new meaning to the show's title.
All in all, this is a competent production that largely overcomes its glitches, especially if you clue the younger ones in to the plotline beforehand.