The Yellow Brick Road led straight into the 1970s the last time Dorothy traveled it by way of New Venture Theatre.
And it made sense. The Wiz made its Broadway premiere on Jan. 5, 1975, in the Majestic Theatre. More than three decades later, New Venture opened its version of Charlie Smalls’ hit musical on the Independence Park Theatre stage.
That was in 2009, which is significant because Michael Jackson died only four months earlier. And anyone familiar with the musical’s history knows Jackson played the Scarecrow in the 1978 film version of The Wiz. Diana Ross played Dorothy and Richard Pryor was The Wiz, encased in trademark ’70s psychedelic colors and mod music.
The film was fun, and traveling back in time was fun for the New Venture cast.
“But we are moving so far away from that this time around,” said Greg Williams Jr., New Venture’s founder and artistic director, as well as director of this production. There are times he has to make himself “ease on down the road” with this new production.
“Ease on Down the Road” is The Wiz’s theme song, and though the melody has a clear ’70s Motown feel, even that has changed.
“It’s amazing what adding a few guitars will do for a song,” Williams said. “The melody is still the same, but it feels completely different. This whole production feels completely different, and I have to make myself move forward on it, because I was really proud of so many decisions I made as a director the last time we did it.”
The show opens Thursday, July 18, in Independence Park Theatre.
“The first time we did this show was in our second season, and we didn’t define our audience until we did Dream Girls in our third season,” Williams said. “We’ve experienced 100 percent growth since we did Dream Girls, and we wanted to give our audience a chance to see this again.”
Williams assembled a new production team, which includes Courtney Thompson as set designer, Renee Chatelain as choreographer and Loneka Wilkinson Batiste as music director. His assignment was simple: create a magical world that can’t be defined by any era.
“And I have to say, they’ve done it,” Williams said. “And they keep doing things that surprise me every day. And Renee is a genius as choreographer. She’s made the Yellow Brick Road a character, and the dancers are dressed in yellow. They pick up the characters and transport them from place to place.”
William F. Brown wrote the book for The Wiz, which was billed as “The Super Soul Musical” when it opened in 1975. The story is a retelling of L. Frank Baum’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Dorothy lives in Kansas with her uncle and aunt but wants adventure. A tornado whisks her away to Munchkinland, where she’s told The Wiz’s magical powers can transport her back home. She must travel the Yellow Brick Road to meet him. Along the way, she meets the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tin Man.
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