By Mary Boyle
The story of The Wizard of Oz is ingrained in American culture Written by L. Frank Baum, an American children's novelist, the story was a hit upon publishing in 1900, and was made into a Broadway musical just two years later. The movie we all know and love, based on the musical, arrived in 1939, and has the honor of being the very first film made in Technicolor. Then, in 1975, a new musical version of this classic tale made its way to Broadway with a modern African-American setting. The Wiz won seven Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical, and was one of the first Broadway productions with an all-black cast. Now, you can see this groundbreaking musical for yourself, thanks to First Stage.
On a farm in Kansas, Dorothy (Camara Stampley/Reese Parish) lives with her Aunt Em (Cynthia Cobb, who also plays Glinda) and Uncle Henry (Shawn Holmes), and her little dog, Toto, of course. When a twister hits, Dorothy's house is flung to the land of Oz, accidentally landing on the Wicked Witch of the East. The munchkins rejoice, and the Good Witch of the South, also known as Addaperle (Candace Thomas), gives Dorothy the silver slippers off of the deceased witch's feet, and sends her off to see The Wiz to see if he might be able to send her back home. Along the way, Dorothy meets a Scarecrow (Dimonte Henning) in need of a brain, a Tin Man (Darrington Clark) in need of a heart, and a cowardly Lion (James Carrington) in need of some courage. They arrive in the Emerald City and meet The Wiz (Shawn Holmes) at last, but he won't give them anything unless they kill the Wicked Witch of the West, Evilene (Raven Dockery).
Alex Radtke, of Cedarburg, who makes his debut with First Stage in The Wiz, is a part of the "Winkie" cast of young performers. Alex plays a Munchkin, Winkie, and a crow in Scarecrow's garden. Though he isn't a complete stranger to acting, Alex said First Stage "is more of a real deal." By the end of the show, Alex will have performed his parts 27 times to both public and school audiences.
Directed by Sheri Williams Pannell and Ameenah Kaplan, The Wiz remains true to its roots. The costumes by Theresa Ham feature traditional African designs and fabrics, and the adult cast is populated by some of Milwaukee's best black performers. The set, designed by Kurtis Boettcher, had the amazing ability to go from a Kansas Farm to the Emerald City by a simple change of lighting. The Wiz, himself, is inspired by none other than the great James Brown, and Shawn Holmes truly creates a larger-than-life character. James Carrington is absolutely perfect as the Lion, and Raven Dockery is spectacular as Evilene. The Young Performers are double cast, and I saw the Winkie Cast, featuring Camara Stampley as Dorothy, who really held her own with the adult performers. If Todd Wehr Theater could only hold an orchestra, this would be a Skylight-worthy musical. All in all, this family-friendly telling of The Wiz is a road everyone will want to "ease on down" together!
The Wiz runs through March 25th at the Todd Wehr Theater, located at 929 N. Water Street in downtown Milwaukee. Tickets may be purchased at www.firststage.org or through the Marcus Center box office, in person at 929 N. Water Street in downtown Milwaukee or by phone (414) 273-7206 or toll free at (888) 612-3500.
About First Stage
First Stage is one of the nation’s leading theaters for young people and families. First Stage touches hearts, engages minds, and transforms lives by creating extraordinary theater experiences through professional theater productions that inspire, enlighten, and entertain. Its Theater Academy, the nation’s largest high-impact theater training program for young people, fosters life skills through stage skills and serves over 2,100 students each year. As Wisconsin’s leader in arts-integrated education in schools, First Stage’s dynamic Theater in Education programs promote literacy, character building, and experiential learning throughout the curriculum, serving over 20,000 students each year. First Stage was selected to participate in the Partners in Education program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2012), and was the recipient of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Eureka Award, recognizing creativity and innovation in business, education, and the arts for its Next Steps program for students with autism (2013, 2015). First Stage is a member of TYA/USA, the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education, Theatre Wisconsin, Milwaukee Arts Partners, and is a cornerstone member of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF).