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The Wiz at Tacoma Musical Playhouse

High marks go to the tech crew and designers

Charles Simmons as Scarecrow, Jimmy Shields as Tinman, Alexandria Henderson as Dorothy, and Matt De La Cruz as Lion. Photo courtesy Tacoma Musical Playhouse

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The Wiz hit Broadway like Soul Train on steroids in 1975, winning seven Tony Awards, including best musical. It was followed-up three years later by a popular film version starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. To ask any community theater to follow that is a tall order. Tacoma Musical Playhouse gives it a good try with an elaborate production that hits a few high notes but does not consistently reach the high-energy level the show demands.

What does meet high marks is the work of the technical crew and designers: sets by Bruce Haasl, lighting by John Chenault, and a whole lot of fabulous costumes by Jocelyne Fowler - from costumed Munchkins on rolling chairs hidden by flared skirts to the costumed ensemble as a field of poppies and the yellow brick road and green-clad citizens of the Emerald City.

Having dancing actors as part of the set was ingenious. It originated with the Broadway show. Director Jon Douglas Rake said when he first saw the national tour he was fascinated by the Yellow Brick Road being played by dancers and the tornado becoming a dance number as well.  TMP added crows to the scarecrow number, which was not in the original show.

The magnificent giant wizard-head puppet build by Haasl was wonderfully designed and effectively lit. Congrats all around to the tech crew.

The Wiz was written for an African-American cast by William F. Brown (Book) and Charlie Smalls (music and lyrics). It is an urbanized retelling of Frank Baum's classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. TMP's cast is not wholly African-American but mostly people of color. It's good to see such a racially diverse cast.

The show gets off to a rather slow start and doesn't pick up until the first time they do the oft-repeated theme song "Ease on Down the Road." Dorothy (Alexandra Henderson) has a beautiful voice, but she doesn't begin to show her range until this song, which rocks the house - as it should.

The true stars of the show are Charles Simmons as Scarecrow, Jimmy Shields as Tinman, Matt De La Cruz as Lion, and Jamelia Payne as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. Shields, who also co-choreographed with Rake, is one of the best singers in the show and has an amazing repertoire of expressive dance moves. Simmons also shows off some mean moves, and Payne's earth-shaking guttural and gospel-tinged singing on "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News" is one of the musical highlights, along with Henderson's final song, "Home," nicely done as a front-of-the-curtain solo, a lovely change-of-pace ending for a show made up of large production numbers.

One thing different that I have to point out is that a major character was played by an understudy the night I attended. Marion Read usually plays Aunt Em, but was unable to perform that night, and her part was played by Lanita Hudson, who did a great job of filling in. Hudson is in the ensemble and was also a standout performer in a number of other scenes.

Despite overall excellent technical work, there were some uncomfortably long scene changes and, at one point, disturbing backstage noise during a scene change. Hopefully these problems will be worked out for future performances. Overall, it is an entertaining show.

THE WIZ, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday through Dec. 20, $22-$31, Tacoma Musical Playhouse at The Narrows Theatre, 7116 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253.565.6867, www.tmp.org

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