Phenomenal star casting and a young newcomer with killer vocal chops and eyes ripe for close-ups made Thursday night’s telecast of The Wiz Live! NBC’s smoothest outing yet in what should become a holiday tradition. With a few nods to the 1975 Broadway original and some updating that didn’t seem necessary for the previous ventures — last year’s Peter Pan and The Sound Of Music, which launched the idea in 2013 — The Wiz Live! unfolded without any apparent hitches under the direction of Kenny Leon and choreographer Fatima Robinson. The interjection of a half-dozen brief acrobatic sequences courtesy of co-producer Cirque du Soleil (which plans to bring the show to Broadway next season) sexed up a presentation whose chief flaw was the longueurs in which nothing much seemed to be going on around the main characters on Derek McLane’s outsize sets.
Well, perhaps that was the second flaw after the choice of the show itself, a middling representative from the Broadway canon better known for its “Ease On Down The Road” TV spot and the camp-fest 1978 film that starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. With Mary J. Blige as a deliciously nasty Evillene (the Wicked Witch of the West), Queen Latifah as The Wiz and Common as the Gatekeeper of Oz, here renamed Bouncer, campiness threatened, to be sure. But it was rarely to be found in this third outing by executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. Earnestness reigned. Well, commercials reigned, but earnestness set the tone.
The opening scene in Kansas provided a lovely homage to the past, introducing Shanice Williams as Dorothy and, as Aunt Em, Stephanie Mills, who created the role 40 years ago. Williams looks like what she is — an actual identifiable girl — and perfectly conveys the pouty teen angst of a kid certain her loneliness and sense of displacement are the most important matters in the world. Then Willliams sings, and while she’s more America’s Got Talent than Broadway at this point, that’s some voice, and she just got better across the nearly three-hour broadcast.
Supporting her were Elijah Kelly as the loose-limbed Scarecrow, Ne-Yo as an ingratiating Tin-Man, David Alan Grier as a most stage-worthy Lion and Amber Riley as a blue-bedecked and helmet-haired Addaperle, the Good Witch of the South. Orange Is The New Black‘s Uzo Aduba, as Glinda, didn’t show up until the final scene. There were enough candy-colored costumes from Paul Tazewell to recall The Wonderful World Of Disney, and the set was augmented by a digital back wall that took us from waving Kansas wheat fields to the disco-pounding Emerald City without a lot of clunky moving around the sound stages at Long Island’s Grumman Studios.
The performances were confident, accomplished — but too often the show seemed to unfold in slow motion; even the dance numbers seemed tame and undernourished. The retro camerawork didn’t help, constantly going in for closeups when one yearned to see the fully populated stage, letting the viewer be the editor, a chief distinction between live theater and watching a film or TV movie.
Also annoying — and presumably not a factor when the show moves to Times Square — was the chopping up for commercial breaks in a work not designed for them. Harvey Fierstein was brought in to update the script, a task accomplished with noticeable restraint. I did love hearing, when Queen Latifah’s Wiz (a knockout, by the way) was unmasked, “We’ve been played. That’s wack.” Cute.