‘The Wiz’ at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre

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Ease on down the road to Winchester and join Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre for a fast-paced, campy, fun, and ultimately heart-warming journey down the yellow brick road with The Wiz, now playing through July 19th.

Director/Choreographer Edward Carignan and Music Director Matthew J. Pool bring their own exciting vision to this 1970s revamp of The Wizard of Oz. With an exceptional cast, design team, and orchestra, Carignan and Pool serve up a zesty and delightful evening.

Ease on Down The Road with Tinman (Willie Garner), Scarecrow (Jobrari Parker-Namdar), Dorothy (Jessie Hooker), and Lion (Nygel Robinson). Photo by C. King Photography.
Ease on Down The Road with Tinman (Willie Garner), Scarecrow (Jobari Parker-Namdar), Dorothy (Jessie Hooker), and Lion (Nygel Robinson). Photo by C. King Photography.

The music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls retain an irresistible pop appeal, and the cast interprets the music beautifully. Kudos to music director Pool for bringing out the musical best in the cast and orchestra.

The story centers around Dorothy and her journey of growth and self-discovery, and Jessie Hooker makes this iconic role her own with a luminous and vivacious performance. She frequently rises above the material to deliver a witty and heartfelt performance, exuding warm chemistry with her menagerie of misfits and taking us along on her journey to her heart’s desire. When Hooker delivers the eleven o’clock number “Home,” her performance is uplifting, powerful, and gorgeous. The song – and the evening – belongs to her.

Jobari Parker-Namdar is an affable Scarecrow, offering sly humor and loose-limbed dancing in his “Born on the Day Before Yesterday,” performed with three of the snarkiest crows imaginable (a delightful Trevor Schmidt, Stevie Bovo, and Michael Kennedy). As the rusting and heartless Tinman, Willie Garner radiates humor and pathos in his “Slide Some Oil to Me” and “What Would I Do If I Could Feel.” A magnetic Nygel Robinson struts and prowls the stage as the cowardly Lion, winning hearts and stealing scenes in “Mean Ole Lion” and “Be a Lion.”

As Aunt Em, Danielle Grays puts across her big opening number, “The Feeling We Once Had,” with soaring vocal richness, poise, and passion, setting the stage for what promises to be an evening of exciting performances. Jordan McCaskill, Hillary Scales, and DJ Curtis deliver solid performances as the good witches Addaperle and Glinda and the fraudulent Wiz, but it is the fiendishly wicked Evillene (Kendra Lucas) who steals the show. With a powerful belt and a sassy wicked glint in her eye, Lucas soars in her sole song “No Bad News” before being vanquished by Dorothy. This is one time you’ll root for the Wicked Witch of the West to rise again and keep on singing.

Dorothy (Jessie Hooker) rescues the Scarecrow (Jobari Parker-Namdar) from the Crows (Trevor Schmidt, Stevie Bovo, and Michael Kennedy). Photo by C. King Photography.
Dorothy (Jessie Hooker) rescues the Scarecrow (Jobari Parker-Namdar) from the Crows (Trevor Schmidt, Stevie Bovo, and Michael Kennedy). Photo by C. King Photography.

Along with the energy and verve brought by individual performers to their big moments, the production gains stature from Carignan’s stylized, energetic, and well performed choreography. Stand-out numbers included the very cleverly staged “Tornado” (shout out to Megan Valle as the human tornado who whisks Dorothy’s home away piece by piece), the various exuberant installments of the catchy “Ease on Down the Road” (special praise to the human pieces of the Yellow Brick Road, dancers Matthew Lincoln-Bugg, Eli Davis, Renee LaSchiazza, and Emily Rafala), and the incredibly stylized ensemble piece “Emerald City Dance.”

In a clever twist, the very talented Silver Slipper Singers (Freya Falkenstein, Melinda Hockaday, Nick Lenz, and Rafael Martinez-Salgado) provide 1970s-style backup vocals to the onstage action. Unfortunately sound issues at the opening performance occasionally resulted with the backup vocals overpowering the lead singers. I am confident this sound issue will be addressed in subsequent performances.

The book, by William F. Brown, is the ultimate weak spot in The Wiz, moving forward in awkward fits and spurts. Act Two in particular seems cobbled together at times. No sooner have we met the delightfully wicked Witch of the West, Evillene, than she has been defeated and all of the Winkies are singing a Luther Vandross anthem “Everybody Rejoice.” The Wiz’s change of heart in granting the companion’s wishes is nearly as quick and inexplicable moving from talk of green glasses to the beautiful ballad “Believe in Yourself.”  These are flaws in the musical itself, not in the wonderful production that SSMT is staging.

The design team at SSMT consistently delivers top-notch, Broadway quality scenic and costume design. For The Wiz, this team has outdone itself. Technical Director Will Ingham delivers on this complicated and sprawling fantasy world with a seamless production. Scenic Designer William Pierson creates some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring sets I’ve seen on any stage, invoking the dreary landscape of Kansas, the magically outlandish and club-scene inspired Emerald City, and the delightfully wicked castle of the Wicked Witch. Pierson’s wild and wonderful sets are enhanced by William McConnell Bozman’s lighting designs and Michael Mason’s sound design.

The ensemble of The Wiz in the Emerald City. Photo by C. King Photography.
The ensemble of ‘The Wiz’ in the Emerald City. Photo by C. King Photography.

Cheryl Yancey offers up some of the most whimsical and creative costumes seen yet on the SSMT stage, combining the campy and fun elements of the 1970s with the fantastical elements of Oz.  The costumes for the winged monkeys and the Yellow Brick Road especially stood out among a glorious array of the wild and the weird.

SSMT’s The Wiz offers a joyfully effervescent evening of theatre that will have you dancing in your seat.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.

The Wiz plays through July 19, 2015 at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre, performing at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre, 1460 University Drive in Winchester, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (540)665-4569 or (877) 580-8025, or purchase them online.

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Diane Jackson Schnoor
Diane Jackson Schnoor is delighted to be back in the DC metro area after nearly two decades away. She earned her BA at The American University, with a minor in theatre arts, and holds a master's and doctorate in elementary education from the University of Virginia. A lifelong devotee of the arts, Diane's reviews and arts feature stories have been published in The Millbrook Independent and DC Metro Theatre Arts. As an actress, Diane has performed with the Cape Fear Regional Theatre, the Fort Bragg Playhouse, TriArts Sharon Playhouse, and in musicals and dance shows in Millbrook, NY, Amenia, NY, and Lakeville, CT. Her day job career has run the gamut from adjunct college faculty to preschool director to public relations director and back again, but her primary occupation these days is as chauffeur to the two young actresses who inhabit her home in Winchester, VA.