The Wiz eases on down the road

Sharyn Gladstone

NBC has produced lifeless and humdrum live musicals for the past two Decembers with “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan.” From visible strings lifting actors to poor casting choices to Christopher Walken’s infamous high note into silence, NBC likely felt pressured to deliver solid ratings this year.

Rather than putting time into creating elaborate sets similar to “Music” and “Pan,” NBC chose to film on a single stage with moving sets, embodying traditional Broadway musicals. This decision helped to minimize the setting and likely made it easier for performers to move on and off the stage.

NBC launched its third annual live musical event this past Thursday with its contemporary adaptation of the 1978 classic movie, “The Wiz.” The film, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, was a modern-day take on L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” and loosely adapted from the 1974 Broadway musical.

“The Wiz” is the third musical to be launched by NBC, in what the network is calling its “annual holiday tradition.” Low interest and ratings on the network’s lackluster productions of “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan” drove the network to re-work the classic “Wiz” into a more contemporary presentation that the current generation could appreciate.

The network transitioned “The Wiz” out of its city setting, and moved it to the “Oz” setting of Kansas’s farmland. They also stuck to the theme of creating a contemporary “Oz’’ that could resonate in any time period. Amber Riley provided flawless vocals with her performance of Addaperle, even pulling out an iPad when Dorothy requested directions to the Emerald City from Munchkin Land.

The Munchkins were chic in colorful and ruffled cone-like costumes, unlike the chalky and dusty Munchkins in the film who appeared by removing themselves from graffiti-covered walls.

Toto appears along with Dorothy (newcomer Shanice Williams) but is then absent until the very end of the show. This creative decision foreshadowed that the little dog was not going to be the only thing absent from this retooling of the 1970s classic.

Aunt Em (Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy in the Broadway production) opens with “The Feeling We Once Had,” a number that reminded America of Mills’ vast musical talent, still intact after many years.

The production’s tornado was the highlight of its colorful and imaginative stage and costume design. Winds blew, and company dancers wore costumes lined with long capes and forcefully incited the disastrous event with raging variations of movement as lights flashed and tornado images danced behind them. As mesmerizing as these images were, it was the musical’s cast that drove this production.

Shanice Williams (in her first starring role) gave a dazzling and flawless performance of Dorothy. Her vocals were breathtaking, particularly her stirring rendition of “Home,” as she landed every challenging note.

Williams’ acting was breathtaking. She emulated maturity beyond her years, displaying a particular glimmer in her eye that matched her silver slippers, making her performance as the timid Dorothy endearing. It’s difficult to comprehend that this is William’s first acting gig, as she performed as though she has been doing this for years. It seemed that the more she spoke and sang, the more you were drawn in. Expect to hear more from her in the future.

Soulful R&B crooner Ne-Yo plays Tin Woodman (the contemporary Tin Man) in what was an emotionally driven and unexpected display of his additional talent. His must-see performance of “What Would I Do If I Could Feel” proved that Ne-Yo is a true talent, as he not only delivered his usual tender vocals, but also showed he could provide that same tenderness through acting.

While watching these masterful performances, it was frequently difficult to look at, as the cinematography was awkward, panning at odd times or zooming in too fast or too much.

Rapper Common played a guard to the gates of The Emerald City and appeared to be reading his lines, turning his head to the left while speaking then repositioning himself toward the camera. David Alan Grier’s Cowardly Lion was anything but, acting as the bravest of Dorothy’s triumvirate of Ozians.

Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige held smaller roles in the production but failed to fully take command of their performances. Both underperformed on their songs, failing to instill the same emotion as other performers, especially Blige’s drab rendition of the commanding “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” along with amateur overacting.

“The Wiz” was certainly a large leap down the yellow brick road of successful live musical productions for NBC. Rolling Stone claims the success of their “Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan” productions has inspired FOX to launch “Grease Live!” this January.

NBC is heading in the right direction, but they must first prioritize the improvement of their casting and creative decisions before they can become the paramount live musical network.