Ease on down to Ashland for Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 'The Wiz'

Lincoln Kaye is visitng Ashland Oregon, home to Southern Oregon University and the award-winning and internationally-known regional theatre company, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Peppermint petits fours of Emerald City. Photo: Kim Budd.

The closest approximation of a homegrown, made in U.S.A.  uhr-myth has to be The Wizard of Oz. The L. Frank Baum children’s classic – the saga of a Kansas pre-teen, tornado-tossed into a surreal dream world where she befriends talking beasts and mannequins, quells witches, frees slave-elves and debunks a phony godman – melds all the ingredients of an archetypal hero-quest.

The story has given rise, over the past century, to a series of books, as well as multiple stage plays, musicals and films.

In the 1970’s, at the trailing edge of a decade of Civil Rights Movement triumphs, the music-and-lyrics duo of Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown came out with an all-black version, The Wiz, which was then parlayed into a hit movie with an all-star Motown cast.

But now the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) has revived The Wiz in what may be its unlikeliest incarnation yet: a full-dress masque in the grand 17th century tradition, as befits the Tudor splendour of Ashland’s outdoor Elizabethan Theatre.

True to the masque genre, the show is more of a pageant than a drama, full of dazzling finery and stage effects, with a sentimental subtext designed to leave its self-satisfied spectators happily humming its score.

It works. The tunes are eminently hummable. The feel-good libretto ensures that, in this banner year of black rage, here is at least one anodyne African-American production that won’t leave Ashland’s overwhelmingly white audience squirming. We bask in the glow of incandescent performances in all six lead roles.

But, as in any classic masque, the true stars of The Wiz are the offstage architects of the spectacle, especially costume designer Dede Ayite. Her confections of glitz and glitter – decking out the Emerald City courtiers as peppermint petits fours or the eponymous cobbles of that Yellow Brick Road as top-hatted tap-dancers in gold lamé – turn the dozen dancing choristers into dynamic props and stage sets in their own right.

These ensemble players, marshalled by choreographer Byron Easley and director Robert O’Hara, provide a kaleidoscopic backdrop for Dorothy (Britney Simpson) and friends. The three roadie sidekicks brilliantly embody the taxonomic essences of their respective roles: animal (Christiana Clark as the Cowardly Lion), vegetable (J. Cameron Barnett as the straw-stuffed Scarecrow) and mineral (Rodney Gardiner as the Tin Man).

Clark gaps, preens and skulks like a vain but skittish house cat. Barnett flops and flails in loose-limbed abandon as though the only bones in his body were the gleaming dentures in his mile-wide grin. Gardiner jigs, twitches and tap-dances with triple-jointed precision at every well-oiled hinge; he sings in a baritone as resonant as a galvanized bucket.

Jordan Barbour, as the Wiz, morphs from orotund punditry to aw-shucks homeboy diffidence the moment he’s unmasked. And who better to unmask him than Simpson’s Dorothy, with her wide-eyed spunk and innocence like a marginally more Ebonic Orphan Annie.

Yvette Monique Clark shines in all three diva roles: the Wicked Witch of the West, the Good Witch of the North and Auntie Em. Her raspy gospel rendering of “No Bad News” was the show-stopper of the evening.

The religious undertone of the score is apt, as The Wiz like a true masque – is more of a ceremony than a narrative. If you didn’t happen know the story beforehand, you’d be hard-pressed to piece it together from the OSF production. But, Oz-fed from childhood like most of the Ashland audience, I found the show’s patent mix of funk and glam more charming than blaxploitative.

Don’t delve here for much in the way of “meaning,” though. America’s uhr-myth has been around long enough to become overloaded with interesting but irrelevant allegorical interpretations, none of which particularly fit this show.

The positive-thinky follow-your-dream optimism of the libretto now sounds a bit dated, mired in the simpler mindset of its 1970s provenance. These days, we seem more than ever in thrall to the “prosperity gospel” scams of Wiz-style con men, whether black-skinned or orange.

The Wiz has another week to run before the onset of autumn shuts down Ashland’s outdoor Elizabethan stage.     

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