'The Wiz': Penumbra and Children's Theatre Company team up for a colorful trip to Oz

Dan Norman

Dan Norman

“I’m not usually one for adapting Eurocentric endeavors and putting an African-American spin on them,” said Lou Bellamy as he prepared to direct Penumbra Theatre’s latest show, “but this one is different.”

It’s true: There’s nothing quite like The Wiz, the 1974 Wizard of Oz adaptation that’s become a classic of musical theater and a landmark of African-American culture. It was a natural for the inaugural collaboration between Penumbra and the Children’s Theatre Company, which is now hosting the star-studded co-production.

Bellamy took inspiration from the Great Migration, depicting Dorothy (American Idol star Paris Bennett) as being whisked away from the Kansas farm of Aunt Em (Greta Oglesby) and Uncle Henry (Dennis W. Spears) to the thrilling and terrifying city of New York. Projected maps track Dorothy’s journey from Coney Island to the Apollo Theater as she heads uptown in search of the Wiz (T. Mychael Rambo).

A tornado, portrayed here by a corps of silver-clad dancers, is an apt metaphor for this whirlwind of a production, which skips quickly along from one set piece to another. The focus is less on storytelling than on pure energy, with music director Sanford Moore blasting his band right on down the road while a boisterous ensemble tags along for the ride.

Dwight Leslie, Spears, and Rudolph Searles III make a fun trio as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, respectively. The Wiz is a big show for the Lion, and Searles finds a warm chemistry with the confident Bennett. Glinda is played by Jamecia Bennett (yes, Paris’ mom), who sings to her daughter in a manner that acknowledges their shared strength. We’ve got this, their smiling glances seem to say, and indeed they do.

It’s Rambo, though, who connects most directly with the audience. In part that’s because when he emerges from behind his smoke and mirrors, he has the benefit of a relatively quiet scene that gives him room to build that rapport. Aimee Bryant also has some nice moments as Addaperle, the story’s most relatable witch. As Evillene, on the other hand, even the powerful Oglesby is nearly swamped by the steampunk shenanigans unfolding all around her.

As is often the case at CTC, the show’s technical accomplishments are so over the top that they consume some of the cast’s oxygen. Mathew LeFebvre’s costumes are elaborate and virtuosic, from dancing yellow brick roads (complete with flashing construction lights) to Munchkins who are so outrageously colorful, they make Candyland look like an insurance office. It’s certainly eye-popping, but a more restrained approach might have served the performers better.

Although these two companies are still learning how to play to each other’s strengths, this Wiz is a production that pulses with life.

The Wiz
Children’s Theatre Company
2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-874-0400; through March 18