NBC serves up an exuberant "The Wiz Live!"
NEW YORK >> The third time's the charm for NBC.
An exuberant, inventive "The Wiz Live!" on Thursday night breathed new life into the notion of full-scale musicals on live TV with a happy serving of '70s soul and R&B, updated with a 2015 vibe.
Starring a nice mix of pop music heavyweights, Hollywood stars and Broadway veterans, the show had a heart and playfulness that was missing from "The Sound of Music Live!" with Carrie Underwood and "Peter Pan Live!" It even came in under three hours.
This time 12 cameras on Long Island captured even higher stakes with complicated costumes, fire bursts, LED screens, a live dog, smoke and Cirque Du Soleil acrobats in bouncy prosthetic stilts that looked sort of like curved snowshoes. And, in a nice touch, Stephanie Mills, the original Broadway Dorothy, played Auntie Em.
The TV musical starred 19-year-old newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy, who got stronger as the night went on and who crushed the song's finale, "Home;" a strong Queen Latifah as the Wiz with real stage presence; Amber Riley, a very blue good witch of the North who destroyed "He's the Wizard;" and a perfectly evil Mary J. Blige as the Wicked Witch of the West.
But it was the guys on Thursday who really shined: Ne-Yo, as a winning Tin Man, moving fluidly despite a rusty suit, who beautifully delivered "To Be Able to Feel;" Elijah Kelley as an athletic, loose-limbed Scarecrow, who gave us a funky "You Can't Win" while hoisted on a pole; and a dreadlocked, extremely furry David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion, one who gets seriously frisky with some poppies.
After a slowish, understated start in the Kansas countryside and an underwhelming tornado scene, the show got into a groove once the four pals eased on down the road. The four had real chemistry and each served the piece respectfully.
The show was adapted from "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum, with a book by William F. Brown, and music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls. The production opened on Broadway in 1975 and won seven Tonys, including best musical.
A 1978 movie version of "The Wiz" starred Diana Ross, Lena Horne and Richard Pryor. Michael Jackson co-starred as the Scarecrow, with Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man and Ted Ross as the Lion. "The Wiz Live!" honored its rich history and yet also added to it.
The live event was directed with good cheer and genuine spirit by Tony Award-winner Kenny Leon, and mixed songs from the stage and film. If anything, the high level of the performances exposed some weaknesses in the original songs and story.
New material was written by Harvey Fierstein, who included iPad and cholesterol jokes and a bad Spice Girls reference. A dynamite new song that served as the Act One closer, "We Got It," was partly written by Ne-Yo and Kelley, a cool development that meant the Tin Man and Scarecrow got writing credits this time.
Choreographer Fatima Robinson's dancing was modern and light, as when she created a joyful, smiling "Everybody Rejoice," and a fantastic visual introduction to Emerald City complete with voguing, like a party at Lady Gaga's.
Costumer Paul Tazewell's geometric and colorful designs in Munchkinland gave way to scary crows, nasty flying monkeys and steampunk workers. His Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow were inspired genius, while set designer Derek McLane was strongest after the tiny model houses in Kansas.
This version of "The Wiz" is being planned for an extended life — on Broadway — and this telecast will surely boost that effort. It will join "Wicked," which ran a commercial during the telecast, as if in welcome. There's room for both these Oz tales, and for "The Wiz," it will mean that Dorothy has once again returned "home."
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