No Magic from The Wiz

Buy a seat in one of the movable "pods" available at The Wiz, the musical Dallas Theater Center and Dallas Black Dance Theatre are doing together at the Wyly Theatre, and you'll spend a good chunk of the show being rolled around by sweaty stagehands. It's kind of fun wondering where you'll end up from song to song. Each of the 12 pods has 15 seats and they're moved more than a dozen times in the intermission-less 95-minute show.

But beware: The pods limit your view of things. On opening night, the pod I was in spent a lot of time shoved upstage, facing the rest of the audience. We saw the backs of the performers and were so far north of the action that I heard actors chattering in the wings and watched a crew guy waving a fog machine around behind the walls of Oz.

That "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain" jazz doesn't apply in a production in which almost half the audience shares the acting space with Dorothy (played by out-of-town import Trisha Jeffrey) and her pals. The pod thing is a cute crowd participation gimmick — and the moving sections command top ticket prices in the $80 range — but these are not the best seats in the house. The big reveal of the Wizard of Oz (DTC company member Hassan El-Amin) as a pajama-clad "humbug" couldn't be seen at all from my seat.

Pod people do get terrific proximity to the knockout moves of the members of Dallas Black Dance Theatre, however. They play the munchkins, flying monkeys, winkies and other citizens of Oz. Wearing leather short-shorts and little else (costumes by Wade Laboissoinniere are sexy and look expensive), the gorgeous dancers — Claude Alexander III, Makeda Crayton, Katricia Eaglin, Richard A. Freeman Jr., Candace Hamblett-Holford, Michelle Hebert, Diana Herrera, Amber J. Merrick, Derrick Smith, Sean Smith, Jamie Thompson and Tyrone C. Walker — also portray the tornado at the top of the show. As they whirl around, long legs whipping the air (choreography is by Christopher Lance Huggins), the pods go into motion. Not at thrill-ride speed; more like hay ride. Like everything in this production, you keep waiting for the momentum to pick up, for the pods to roll faster and the show to really fly. Never happens.

Director Kevin Moriarty, in his three seasons as DTC's artistic director, has earned a good reputation for bringing fresh concepts to vintage material. He does it every fall with his Shakespeare shows. Remember Midsummer and its hip-hop Rude Mechanicals? And Prince Hal in Henry IV singing that Rufus Wainwright tune? With The Wiz and its wandering pods to Oz, he may have over-hoked it.

The Wiz isn't a great show to start with. It has not held up as a classic American musical, especially with the enormous spectacle of Wicked to compare it to now. The Wiz's music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls (with one song, "Everybody Rejoice," by Luther Vandross) and the book by William F. Brown lack that timeless quality that makes shows worth reviving. (There has never been a successful Broadway revival of it.) It all seems firmly affixed to the styles and attitudes of 1970s, from the wocka-wocka R&B licks in the music to use of "jive turkey" in the dialogue. Haven't heard that phrase since Tenspeed and Brownshoe went off the air.

When it opened on Broadway in 1975 starring 15-year-old belter Stephanie Mills, The Wiz drew bad reviews and became a hit anyway, running more than four years. The all-African-American cast and the upbeat message about black pride and self-respect (almost every song is some variation on "believe in yourself") appealed to a young, diverse audience. Then came the dreary 1984 movie version starring a middle-aged Diana Ross as Dorothy and pffft ... there went interest in The Wiz.

Moriarty has edited several songs and story elements out of The Wiz for the DTC version. So now the show feels clunky as well as truncated. We've just met the Wicked Witch of the West, Evillene (DTC company member Liz Mikel), sitting atop a throne made of monkey skulls, when she's suddenly melting through a trapdoor. Same with the good witch, Glinda (Denise Lee), who's there and gone so quickly her accompanying soap bubbles haven't finished popping before she disappears.

The male principals, all out-of-town talent, are dandy, which is good since they're onstage all the time. As the Scarecrow, James T. Lane has the kickiest number, sounding like Jackie Wilson as he sings "I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday." David Ryan Smith is an adorably sissy Cowardly Lion. Playing Tinman, Sydney James Harcourt brings a lovely, soulful sadness to the ballad "What Would I Do if I Could Feel."

The Tinman is the one who yearns to receive a heart from the all-powerful Wizard. But in this Wiz, the one who needs more heart is Dorothy. Trisha Jeffrey is pretty in her blue and white gingham, and she can hit the big notes, but she never expresses one iota of fear, longing or joy. She's a cipher, going through the motions in a performance as empty as the Tinman's chest.

Oh, and there's no Toto. He was fired in a dress rehearsal for taking a nip out of Dorothy. Everybody's a critic.

Every year there's at least one play at the Festival of Independent Theatres, currently underway at the Bath House Cultural Center, that really packs the house. Could be the script or a hot new actor or actress or just something original about a production that gets theatergoers buzzing. On opening weekend of the monthlong fest, the buzzworthiest offering was Second Thought Theatre's premiere of the one-man show Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self by Dallas writer Eric Steele.

Veteran Dallas actor Barry Nash plays the title character, a corporate motivational speaker in Iowa. With the houselights still up, he takes the stage and starts his speech, which opens with some corny joking around and a little biographical background of how he became a pilot flying cancer patients to chemo treatments in his two-engine prop plane.

The story Bob eventually gets around to concerns how he lost a limb in a tragic event that forced him to find his "best self." This is not an Oprah-like revelation. It's a fascinating tale of survival and triumph that will reorder your personal priority list of petty complaints.

Nash gives a tour de force performance of this taut, well-paced script (directed by Lee Trull). Steele, who's also an actor, filmmaker and co-owner of Oak Cliff's Texas Theatre, has written a monologue as gripping as anything by the late, great Spalding Gray. One actor, no scenery, no lighting, no sound effects. Just words and performance coming together perfectly.

And if there is any actor in Dallas who could hold an audience spellbound for an hour with one arm tied behind his back, it's Barry Nash. With Bob Birdnow, he proves it.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner