"The Wiz" is a perfect collision of disco and show tunes. Appearing on Broadway in 1975, "The Wiz" went on to win the Tony for Best Musical. Though it was not the first all-black production on Broadway, the cross-over appeal of its music made it a sensation. A few years later it was adapted for film starring Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Lena Horn. The film is considerably different than the stage version, for the worse.
Kokandy Productions' "The Wiz" accentuates all the enduring qualities of the show while adding some modern flare of its own. This has to be the hardest working cast in Chicago right now. For two and a half solid hours director Lili-Anne Brown's cast of talented singers and dancers fill the space with an infectious energy. Sydney Charles as Dorothy is cute and brings a sense of humor to the character, her soaring vocals come to an inspiring crest during "Home." Though, it may well be Frederick Harris in the titular role (in fabulous drag no less) who walks away with the evening's biggest laughs. There's not a sour note in this production and each song is either a powerhouse ballad or a funky dance number.
One of the show's many pleasant surprises is the costuming and overall aesthetic. This is highly conceptualized version that suits the intimate space at Theatre Wit. Borrowing from 90s-era TLC and blending it with today's street fashion, costume designer Virginia Varland creates a very stylish motif in an otherwise minimal set. The ensemble looks as great as they sound.
Lili-Anne Brown doesn't complete her update of "The Wiz" with costumes alone. There's some fairly edgy humor written into this production, including a nod to the prevalence of police brutality cellphone videos. This version of "The Wiz" is how it was originally intended to be–for adults. What the movie and the NBC live version miss is a lot of the grown-up humor in the script. After all, this is an urban contemporary version of the Wizard of Oz, it should be cheeky. Miss Brown's vision for Kokandy Productions' "The Wiz" is a lot of fun and keeps its source material relevant.
Through April 16th at Theater Wit. 1229 W Belmont Ave. 773-975-8150
*Extended through April 23rd
Based on the 1988 cult film “Heathers” starring Wynona Ryder and Christian Slater, the talented cast of “Heathers: The Musical” bursts onto the stage with enough energy to "bully" the audience right back into the mean late 80's when this particular tale of murder in high school first raised the issues of teen cruelty over twenty-five years ago. Dark and questionable is the subject matter that it be made into a musical, but the show does have its moments. After all, we are talking about a film that may have forewarned us of the tragic school shootings to come in its wake.
Veronica, the nerdy girl who becomes a "Heather" at the expense of her friendship to the truly kind "fat girl" in her class is well played here by Courtney Mack. Mack shows a full range of emotions as she realizes what has begun as simple teen angst and bullying has turned her new outsider boyfriend, J.D., whom she meets hanging around a 7-11 store all day into a serial murderer. Adding to Mack’s solid performance, Chris Ballou also does a fine job in taking on the role of J.D..
Haley Jane Schafer, Rochelle Therrien and Jacquelyne Jones, are each fantastic as the “Heathers" - the meanest, prettiest girls in school who rule with an iron lipstick case. Each of the Heathers' has her own unique flavor of comedy and delivery and each are very good dancers as well as vocalists.
That said, the set which was a big colorless lump full of doorways did not make you feel you were in a high school at all and was actually a distraction at times. Also, the costumes the Heathers DID wear were great - very sexy period costumes, but then they never changed clothes until almost the end of the show, leaving some disappointment. As gorgeous, skinny, fickle fashion mongers, this inconsistency made the show feel much to be desired when it came to dressing them as the story progressed with the lack of colorful, sexy clothing and accessory changes as occurs in the movie and would be a big part of their real high school lives.
The songs may not have been on the most memorable side, but the show did have a few good laughs. There was some terrific physical comedy in the slow motion fight scene between the two jocks who terrorize all the girls in school with jokes about date rape, etc.
Certainly a challenging task at hand, James Beaudry's direction in this small venue with so much young and energetic talent falls short in that it seemed the play starts at a very high level of energy and volume and continues at that exact same volume even during the ballads. Instead, there needed to be some genuine reflection and time to rest for the characters to be fully formed and also to rest the audience’s ears – simply put, more dynamics.
All in all, this cast did a great job with the materials they were given and delivered a funny, bitter and scary version of what life in high school was like then and now. See "Heathers" with the expectation of a few decent yuks, a handful of entertaining musical numbers ("Big Fun" comes to mind) and a sometimes pretty accurate nostalgic peek at high school in the late 1980's.
Kokandy Productions of “Heathers: The Musical” is being performed at Theater Wit through April 24th. For more show information, visit www.theaterwit.org.
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