Last Friday evening the Chattanooga Theatre Centre (CTC) ushered-in its 95th season with a sold-out revival of Charlie Smalls’ 1975 musical classic “The Wiz,” and the grand slam ensemble cast curated by stage and musical director Shane Morrow did not disappoint local theatregoers.
From the opening number, “The Feeling We Once Had,” sung by Neshawn Calloway as Aunt Em, the audience was slain: they were utterly enchanted with the seasoned musical accompaniment provided by Morrow’s small orchestra; they were hooked by the undeniable vocal talent and enthusiasm which was pervasive among the supporting cast from the minor players right down to the five-year-old chorus boys singing and dancing in perfect rhythm on stage; and, most of all, the audience was spellbound by the mastery of vocal craft exhibited by not one or two, but at least five major players in this production that will undoubtedly go down in the annals of CTC history as a milestone in the near 100-year history of this Chattanooga institution.
Calloway’s Aunt Em sets the tone for this production of “The Wiz,” which is the story of “The Wizard of Oz” told through the unique lens of African-Americans as adapted from the novel by William F. Brown.
But, soon the heavy lifter of this show rose to be recognized. Not only was she recognized, but Maya Jaffar as Dorothy cemented her reputation as a “real deal” musical performer on CTC’s stage last Friday.
The 18-year-old’s CTC debut was marked by one musical triumph followed by yet another. “Soon as I Get Home,” sung after Dorothy finds herself storm-blown to the inhospitable Land of Oz, is an intimate aria of sorts, originated on stage in 1975 by then 18-year-old Stephanie Mills.
Ms. Jaffar nailed the piece with a nuanced sensitivity and emotional intelligence possessed by few musical actors 10 years her senior. Diminutive in stature, Ms. Jaffar’s grasp of the character’s emotionality is rare; rare, too, is the actress’s enormous voice and versatile vocal range tempered by finessed control.
Dorothy’s dark sojourn through the forests and glades is inevitably interrupted by the rag-tag crew that audiences young and old know so well: first we meet Scarecrow, impeccably portrayed by Darryl Wheeler; the second odd-ball addition to the travel party is Tin Man, played by Donel Solomon; last to join the team of unwitting misfits is the whimpering Lion, owned lock, stock and barrel in this production by comedic powerhouse, Tiffany Williams.
Simply put: there aren’t enough column inches in these pages to heap enough accolades on this production. But, I would be remiss without mentioning Karen McReynolds in the title role.
Ranging from the blustering, authoritative Wiz propped up by pomp and circumstance, protected by imperial guards and cloistered behind the high gates of the Emerald City; to the no frills, no pretense lady in a nightcap whose fraudulent wizardry has been uncovered by the traveling misfits, McReynolds is evermore the actress, and, mercy, can she belt out a song.
“Believe in Yourself,” is arguably the most powerful song in the show, and McReynolds delivered it with the grace and girth of a grande dame of Old Broadway.
You can’t have a Wiz without a Wicked Witch, and Donyea Mitchell as Evillene was a fun twist. Costumed in a quasi-dominatrix suit, this deliciously sadistic witch meets her end, as we know, at the end of a water pail.
Foiling Evillene’s villainy, are Calloway as glamorous Glinda the Good Witch, and her sister, Addaperle, the hapless, golden-hearted witch whose spells never work, but who is adored by audiences.
Half a page could be devoted to this production’s music and choreography, both of which were superb. Felicion McMillon-Diakhate choreographed the production with dancing reminiscent of Solid Gold dancers, gymnastics, and hints of the Electric Slide, among much more.
Terrance Wright surely must be one of the stars of this production with his gorgeous costuming that this writer is not adept enough to describe.
Sarah Miecielica and Rondell Crier headed the scene design, which was very well executed.
The only glaring problem with the CTC’s revival of “The Wiz”: ticket availability. CTC executive director Todd Olson told audiences that several subsequent performances are sold out. So, call the CTC to ensure you have a ticket to this historic production.
Performances are Sept. 21-24, 28-30, and Oct. 1. Friday and Saturday performances begin at 8 p.m., Thursday shows are at 7 p.m., and Sunday matinees start at 2:30 p.m.