Written by Aaron Sarnecky
THE WIZ LIVE! PLOT SUMMARY:
Based on the Broadway musical of the same name. It’s the Wizard of Oz tale you know with an African-American cast and original songs. Featuring Shanice Williams as Dorothy, Elijah Kelley as the Scarecrow, Ne-Yo as the Tin Man, David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion, Mary J. Blige as the Wicked Witch of the West, and Queen Latifah as the Wiz.
Although I have not watched NBC’s previous live musicals, I know that they have a certain reputation, especially Peter Pan Live! From what I’ve read and heard, some viewers criticized it for featuring Allison Williams as Peter Pan, continuing the long and outdated tradition of having Peter Pan portrayed by a female, while others made fun of Christopher Walken for forgetting his lines. I suppose NBC’s production of The Sound of Music fared better, considering it started this musical trend, though I do remember my grandmother complaining about the actor playing Captain von Trapp having a weak voice.
Because of this, I wasn’t expecting greatness going into The Wiz Live! But that being said, I decided to give it a fair shot. After all, even though I don’t absolutely love The Wizard of Oz from 1939, it’s undoubtedly a good movie and a classic; it happens to be one of the few things I still own on VHS. Plus, I was also interested in how different The Wiz would be from the story I grew up with.
However, it turns out that NBC’s musical is not that far removed from the version that I know. Whereas the 1978 film features the Land of Oz as an alternate New York City (and the late Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow), the stage version has a more conventional look to Oz and the Emerald City. In addition, Dorothy is still a Kansas girl, not a schoolteacher from Harlem. Still, there are some changes when compared to the 1939 film (which is itself an adaptation), most notably a much shorter appearance by the Wicked Witch of the West. In fact, she doesn’t even show up until after Dorothy and her friends meet the Wiz for the first time. Other differences include the way the Wiz is presented, as well as an absence of Dorothy’s dog, Toto, save for in the beginning and end (which makes sense, given that it’s a live, televised production).
Despite the musical tinkering with the characters a bit, I have almost no complaints when it comes to them. All the players do an excellent job not just with acting, but also with the singing. Shanice Williams has some serious pipes, as does Stephanie Mills, who has a brief but memorable appearance as Aunt Em. It is a little bit strange that the Emerald City bouncer (the rapper Common) doesn’t have any songs, as far as I remember. It’s kind of a waste of talent. He may be in the Emerald City number, but if he is, he’s hidden. Other actors, though perhaps not as standout as Williams, do the characters justice, particularly David Alan Grier and Ne-Yo as the Lion and the Tin Man, respectively. Even Queen Latifah’s Wiz, while unorthodox (partly because it’s a woman as a male character), commands every scene he’s in.
The songs the characters sing, however, are not as catchy as they probably should be. While “Ease on Down the Road” (the Yellow Brick Road song) and “Everybody Rejoice” definitely stick out, the rest of the score is just alright. It sounds good but it’s not something I would hum to myself. The soul/R&B/gospel blend just can’t compete with the music of the Judy Garland movie. The choreography, on the hand, is great. It was definitely wise of NBC to partner with Cirque du Soleil, though Elijah Kelley also does an impressive backflip in the Scarecrow’s first song. The set design and wirework are quite good too. I have to say that it seems like the production went off without a hitch, even if I did read someone online say they saw a camera, though I didn’t see it.
But I will admit that while there isn’t anything wrong with The Wiz Live! from a technical perspective, it drags on. With commercial breaks (which helped hide set changes), the whole production clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes. I’d imagine it might be a little shorter On Demand, but probably not by much. I really can’t think of the runtime being acceptable unless the home video release cuts it down to 2 hours or shorter.
The problem is that I’ve seen the story before, and with this musical being generally faithful, it feels even more familiar. And it’s not the only time I’ve seen someone adapt it. The Muppets did one 10 years ago on ABC (Queen Latifah and David Alan Grier were actually both in that as well, as Aunt Em and Uncle Henry). Not to mention all The Wizard of Oz parodies TV shows have done over the years. The point is that every time I see a different imagining of the tale, it loses some of its luster. So, unless Hollywood wants to remake The Wiz film, that there should be an indefinite moratorium on these adaptations.
But I’m not going to say that some part of me didn’t enjoy The Wiz Live! Because, beyond its predictability and long runtime, it has its moments, and the presentation and performances are spot on. There’s not much NBC could have done to change it for the better anyway. I do hope, however, that the execs have chosen something more unique for next year’s musical though, assuming there is one.
RATING: 6.5 OUT OF 10 (AVERAGE)