NY Music & Cabaret Review by Marilyn Lester
Anyone arriving late at 54 Below may have wondered if they hadn’t stumbled into a revival meeting with all the whoopin’ and hollerin’ going on. But no, this was an audience deliriously happy to be hearing 54 Sings The Wiz. When T. Oliver Reid – Broadway triple threat, cabaret star and now director – introduced the evening, he said once it got going it wouldn’t stop. He was right. The Wiz train barreled down the track, electric with the sound of high-octane performers, and generating enough voltage to light up the City of New York for at least a month.
The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was the breakout musical of 1975. Featuring the “novelty” of an all-back cast, the show was nominated for eight Tony Awards and won seven of them, including awards for Charlie Small’s music and lyrics (book writer William F. Brown did not win) and George Faison’s choreography. Faison, who was in the audience, was as rapt as anyone as a parade of divas belted out the music, furnishing an amazing confluence of collective vocal chords.
Adriane Lenox delivered “That Feeling We Once Had,” arriving at the center of the song with the interpretive powers she so recently demonstrated in After Midnight. Kenita Miller followed with a spirited “He’s the Wizard,” handing over the mic to N’Kenge, who sang “Soon As I Get Home” with her trademark panache and dynamism. The first iteration of “Ease on Down the Road” was delivered deftly by Ashley M. Stroud.
The gentlemen of the cast were not to be outdone. Gregory Haney sang a soulful “I Was Born the Day Before Yesterday,” while later in the evening Terry Burrell mastered “Emerald City Green.” Alton F. White sang the Tin Man’s song “Slide Some Oil to Me” with a delightful little dance at the end, and Scarecrow’s “What If I Could Feel.”
Following White, from the back of the house, came a booming voice which quickly attached itself to the venerable Ken Page. Working his way through the crowded room he arrived on stage to finish the perfectly theatrical “I’m a Mean Ole Lion.” Resplendent in a striking white suit, Page followed with Christina Sajous on the touching and powerful “Be a Lion.” As Sajous exited, she handed the mic to Eleasha Gamble, who, with Page, reprised “Ease On Down the Road.”
As to the Wizard himself, what Kingsley Leggs most had to do was be Leggs; for as with Robert Preston’s association with Music Man, the original Wizard, André deShields still possesses the role. Comparisons must be put aside. Leggs’ “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard,” and “Y’All Got It,” nailed it. Leggs sang with incisive gusto and pinpointed the role with the brains and courage Tin Man and Lion would envy.
For “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” Kecia Lewis delivered the goods with a forceful gospel-slant. “Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day)” was sung by the chorus – Rema Webb, Virginia Woodruff, Mariand Torres, and Danielle Herbert – with Eleasha Gamble providing comic relief as Evilene, effecting three hilarious wig changes: green (with a nod to Idina Menzel and Wicked), orange (an Eartha Kitt interpretation) and blonde (German accent for Hedwig). Earlier, the chorus sang a reconceived (by Music Director James Sampliner) version of “Tornado.” Herein lay the only flaw of the evening: despite the state-of-the-art sound installed in 54 Below, mic-ing on the chorus was uneven and, therefore, disappointing and ungratifying.
James Sampliner also provided piano playing, at times so enthusiastically it seemed he’d launch himself into space if his fingers hadn’t been attached to the eighty-eights. Backed by Gref Skaff on guitar, George Farmer on bass guitar and Gary Seligson on drums, the quartet provided a mighty, rockin’ sound most notably experienced in the short overture.
All good things end, they say, and so the house was proverbially brought down with “Believe In Yourself” begun by Kinglsey Leggs and taken up by Broadway veteran and diva extraordinaire, Vivian Reed – with Rashidra Scott literally bringing it “Home,” with the cast gathered on stage. The conclusion to 54 Sings The Wiz brought on the mother of standing ovations, there being a number of them earlier during the show. The Wiz proved a magnificent debut for T. Oliver Reid; smart choices and excellent pacing should ensure that his debut eases on down the directorial road with gratifying “tornadic” results.
The Wiz – Super Soul Musical: 54 Sings Series, August 10 at 7 and 9:30 pm. 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, 646-476-3551 www.54below.com