‘The Wiz Jr.’ world premiere looms at the Children’s Theater in Cincinnati
“We wanted to do this show for a long time,” said Krista Katona Pille, director of sales and marketing for the Children’s Theater of Cincinnati.
She talks about “The Wiz Jr.”, which the company opens on April 2. Roderick Justice, the group’s artistic director, had contacted the people who controlled the rights to the show, but for some reason they were unable to finalize a deal until now.
If you’re unfamiliar with TCT shows, you might be wondering what “Jr.” is at the end of the title. As this appendix suggests, these are productions aimed at younger audiences. Typically, shows last about 60 minutes. Now, if you’re a Broadway purist, that might sound heretical. But the best of these compressed shows are remarkably faithful to the spirit and substance of the originals. And most of the memorable musical numbers are there too – just a bit shorter.
There are loads of these modified productions, of “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical Jr.” and “Elf Jr.” to, believe it or not, “Fiddler on the Roof Jr.” There’s even an “Into the Woods Jr.”
But not “The Wiz”.
It’s someone guess why. The 1975 Broadway original, with its all-black cast, was a breakthrough hit. But the star-studded movie version, with 33-year-old Diana Ross miscast as Dorothy, lost a lot of money.
Maybe it was “The Wiz Live!” from NBC! in 2015, this reignited optimism about the show. Anyway, after years of pleading, TCT got the green light to create an original adaptation of the series. Deondra Kamau Means, the company’s resident playwright, set to work on a new, scaled-down script as part of TCT’s script development division.
Finally, after many revisions and adjustments, the show is ready for the stage. The cast and creative staff are made up of a who’s who of local black performers — and a few from out of town. The musical director, for example, is Jason Alexander Holmes, artistic director of the Cincinnati Boychoir. The costumes are by Daryl Harris, professor of theater at Northern Kentucky University.
Among the foreigners are a pair of New Yorkers; director Zhailon Levingston and choreographer Tislarm Bouie.
For some directors, an invitation to stage a play for young audiences – even with high artistic demands like TCT – may seem like an affront.
But not in Levingston, though he recently made his Broadway debut with “Chicken & Biscuits.”
“First of all, this is a world first,” said Levingston, 27. “Who says no to a world premiere? Also, it’s ‘The Wiz.’ For me, it was the only musical movie we always watched when we played in the back room of my cousin’s house.
But for Levingston, the appeal of “The Wiz Jr.” went far beyond tender childhood memories.
“As a black director — especially for me, a black director early in my career — I feel like we’re often asked to direct shows like ‘A Raisin in the Sun,'” he said. he declares. “It’s a beautiful piece. But sometimes it feels like theaters have quotas they’re trying to fill. The only time you hire a black director is when you perform a black play.
And while it’s true that “The Wiz” is performed by an all-black cast, being asked to direct it feels totally different from Levingston.
“Because it’s the first time it’s been done, you can bring all your imagination to the table,” he said. “Despite what you might think, it’s rare in this business.”
Working hand in hand with Means, Levingston installed “The Wiz” in his native Louisiana. So instead of a tornado, there’s a hurricane.
“The Emerald City is more like Bourbon Street,” Levingston said. “And the witch’s lair looks more like a Tabasco factory.” And… well, I don’t want to give away any surprises.
But even with all these changes, Levingston insisted, audiences will still feel the kinship between this musical and the original.
“Just like ‘The Wizard of Oz’, ‘The Wiz’ is about growing up,” Levingston said. “We didn’t want to lose any of that because it’s at the heart of the story. And that’s what’s so impressive about what Deondra did with the script. He cut it and transposed it to another place. But he kept the integrity of the story.
“The Wiz Jr. runs from April 2-11 at the Taft Theater at Fifth and Sycamore streets downtown. Tickets start at $10 at thechildrenstheatre.com.