A proper review of "The Wiz" at the Wells Theatre in Norfolk is in order. The theatre itself was built in the 1912-1913 and was one of the great Vaudevillian Houses in the nation through the great depression. It was mainly a movie house for the next two decades and then in 1960's X-rated movies took over and the back portion of the theater catered to prostitutes and their clientele. In a navy town like Norfolk, there was plenty of clientele. The theater was rescued by the Virginia Stage Company in 1979 and since undergone a series of restorations. It's really wonderful inside and out.
"The Wiz" was a collaboration between the VSC and Norfolk State University's drama Department. Most of the cast is made of University students including most impressively, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and Dorothy. To the great delight of the audience the managing director mentioned in his welcoming statement that VSC had gone to New York City and held auditions, but that the VSC students were all heads and shoulders above the professionals they auditions there. This brought a gasp of delight and applause from the audience, and a quiet little inner "bullshit" from me. However, well intentioned, he stretched the truth there. Although it could very well be that their budget didn't allow them to pay at a rate commiserate with the expectations of top talent--@ just $35.00 for prime Orchestra seating, they're not raking in the dough. But I digress, and now I want to say this. The student's were wonderful, and the student leads were exceptional when you stop to consider that the three I mentioned were between 17 and 19 years old.
The entire production shown with a vitality and physicality that bespoke the sheer fun everyone on stage was having and the audience responded in kind. Of the three afore mentioned student leads the clear standout was Alana Houston as Dorothy. Both her voice and her stage presence would give one wonder if she were somehow related to that other Houston of song legend. She finessed each song with tremendous instinct and ended the show with the "Finale" that brought the house down. Jonathan Cooper's Tin Man was another highlight-worthy performance for both is amazing voice and his captivating general choreography, as well as, his dancing in particular. And finally, a non-student member of the cast Darius Nelson's portrayal of the Cowardly Lion was comic gold from his twitching eyes to his perfectly timed one-liners.
The sets were many and functional with a wonderful use of lighting effects to enhance their contribution to the story--and some really beautiful costumes, in a production with so many costume changes among the supporting ensemble members.
There were some technical glitches, trouble with the sound system in the first 4 minutes, a lighting error, and a flying monkey costume failure! (The actor with the faulty wings just moved though it with focus on his roll, very best of an awkward situation.) The only flaws I could see. And in spite of these, you more than got your money's worth!
|The Good Witch of the North, Addaperle (Meredith Noël)|
|Meeting the Scarecrow (Matthew Jackson)|
|Dorothy (Alana Houston) helps the Tin Man (Jonathan Cooper)|
|Darius Nelson as the Cowardly Lion|
|A moment of campy schtick from Darius Nelson as the Cowardly Lion|
|Laiona Michelle as Eveline the Wicked Witch of the West|
|The trio of companions: Darius Nelson as the Cowardly Lion, Matthew Jackson at the Scarecrow, and Jonathan Cooper as the Tin Man|
|Preparing to return to Kansas, Indya Jackson as the Wiz|
|Alana Houston belting out the Finale to delight of everyone!|