By now Wiz rookies—including those who angrily complained about the all-black cast and/or who likely clutched their pearls when they bypassed a rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow”—have likely discovered the distinction between the Judy Garland-led classic musical and the Wiz’s reimagined tale of The Wizard of Oz. While the production may still have gathered ire from some, for most (and at least Black Twitter), the star-studded cast of NBC’s The Wiz Live didn’t disappoint.
But first, kudos to the lead, Shanice Williams, the 19-year-old who played the role of Dorothy. Performing live for a national primetime television audience is no small feat. However for her first major professional role, Williams looked like she knew what she was doing. She was poised as the youthful, sweet but sassy revamp of Dorothy from the original 1975 stage musical, which was played by Stephanie Mills on Broadway and later by Diana Ross for the feature-length film adaptation in 1978. Williams looked comfortable singing, dancing and easing on down the road throughout the live event, however, I questioned whether she had the chops to pull off a powerful ending. I sat nervous with clinched fists when the moment came for her to dive into the “Home” solo, which Mills turned into a Billboard chart topper after releasing it on her 1989 album. And I have to admit, Williams gave a pretty solid performance. Of course, I went to bed humming the Stephanie Mills version, but I digress.
There were a few other surprises. Who knew David Alan Grier could sing? The In Living Color star and Yale drama school graduate slid through with the tenor on his “I’m a Mean Old Lion” song. However, the funny man’s cowardly quips and punch lines as the Lion fell flat without the help of a laugh track. And who knew Emerald City would be serving up slayage? The all-green-everything voguing dance club had me like, “Yas, where’s the party for New Year’s Eve?” And who knew people cared that much about a missing Toto?
As far as what was expected: Ne-Yo delivered exactly the performance I thought he would. He sounded like the Grammy-award winner he is; and his dancing brought the Tin Man to life during his “Slide Some Oil to Me” number. And of course, Black Twitter was on standby, waiting for some dabbing and nae-naeing to make its way into the choreography, as it did (thanks to Fatima Robinson). Also as predicted, Common was just common, appearing as the lackluster Emerald City bouncer.
Things picked up again, once Dorothy and crew finally made it to see the queen…I mean the Wiz, played by Queen Latifah. And she looked electrifying. The costume and makeup team had her green and white ensemble on fleek, but I better not see anyone else rocking that mint-swirled ’do around town. Unfortunately, I think the wizard suit and wig was tied to Latifah’s magnetism because when she appeared without them and in a Hillary Clinton-esque getup for the “Y'all Got It” number, I was instead thinking, “Y’all got to wrap this up quickly.”
Sadly, another mediocre point for me was Mary J Blige’s portion. The Mary memes, which started way before her scene, built up anticipation for the evil queen Evillene to bring out some truly villainous “hateration.” Yet in between a slipped curse word and lots of unconvincing yelling, her “No Bad News” performance was a bit overshadowed. The dancing poppies ("thotppies," "thot-trees," or whatever you want to call them) were a bit of a miss in my book. Someone should’ve put in a call to the Twerk Team. But the biggest fail of the night goes to the forced “urban” vocab. We worked so hard to erase the word “conversate” from our repertoire after Biggie misled a generation of rap fans. I’m not really mad with the effort to make the dialogue hipper and edgier. But the use of all the double negatives was a bit much, no? Do we still live in a time when we consider broken English a signature of blackness?
Overall, the live production was successful. The talent involved in the film adaptation, which also starred Michael Jackson, Lena Horne and Richard Pryor, set the entertainment level bar high for every musical that followed. Yet, the Wiz Live was able to capture some of those signature Wiz moments and intertwine a current spin—and do so while masking the cheesiness and awkwardness often associated with theatrical musicals. The cast and performances combined to deliver what I thought was NBC’s best live musical telecast yet (Sorry, Christopher Walken). And I think Tony-award-winning director Kenny Leon, who helped to introduce the old favorite to a younger and non-black audience, may have won some new fans—and possibly nominations.