‘The Wiz’ is a revival that’s right for our time

Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion, Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman, and Avery Wilson as Scarecrow in "The Wiz."
Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion, Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman, and Avery Wilson as Scarecrow in “The Wiz.”
Jeremy Daniel

The explosion of color and exuberance that greets Dorothy when she lands in Oz in the dazzling revival of “The Wiz” now at the Marquis is just one treat in what is easily the happiest musical on Broadway right now. Almost 50 years after the show was a smash — and took home the Tony Award for Best Musical — the show is back in a big way.

William F. Brown’s original book has been updated by Amber Ruffin, and the show is sassier and simpler than the original. There’s a pointed comic sensibility — irony bordering on edginess — that contemporary audiences will relate to, making this feel more like a reimagining than a revival. At the same time, the show has lost none of its heart, and Dorothy’s quest to find her way home no matter what obstacles are put in its way resonates as it always has.

The story is probably as familiar as any in literature, and it’s been told in many ways since the book was first published in 1900. In “The Wiz” in 2024, Dorothy is an orphaned teen sent from New York to Kansas to live with her Aunt Em. Disaffected, lonely, and lost, she’s swept off in a Tornado to Oz, house and all. The house lands on Evamean, the Witch of the East, killing her. Cheered on by the grateful townspeople, Dorothy heads off on her journey to the Emerald City to have the Wiz solve all her problems. Along the way, she meets the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Cowardly Lion, and this fearsome (and often frightened) foursome overcome all kinds of nastiness, much of it at the hands of Evilene, the Witch of the West, who wants Dorothy’s silver slippers to attain ultimate power. Eventually meeting the Wiz, the heroes are off to kill the Witch, which they do, only to find the Wiz was a conman, and his supposed power little more than propaganda. True to the narrative tropes of a quest story, however, Dorothy’s three pals realize that in facing their fears they always had what they were seeking, and with a click of her silver slippers, Dorothy finds her way home with a new, more mature perspective — and likely some very trippy memories. (None of the Oz stories ever really address that aftermath.)

Phillip Johnson Richardson in "The Wiz."
Phillip Johnson Richardson in “The Wiz.”Jeremy Daniel

Director Schele Williams and choreographer Jaquel Knight bring the story to life with abundant creativity. The stage is constantly filled with wonderful images and exciting movement. In particular, the flock of crows that pick on the poor Scarecrow and the tantalizing Poppies that would lure the travelers to sleep are both witty and stunning to look at. The Yellow Brick Road is represented by five actors in, you guessed it, bright yellow. It’s an effective device, another example of the kind of creative stagecraft and theatricality of this production.

The score is familiar to many, particularly because of the 1978 movie that’s become a classic, and it’s a collection of ballads and comic pieces. The orchestrations for this production have been cleverly updated, and, like the revised book, work well for now. Whether the Tinman’s jazzy “Slide some Oil to Me,” Dorothy’s 11 O’clock number, “Home,” the iconic “Ease on Down the Road,” or Evilene’s “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” it’s a brilliant mix of styles, and each song gets the audience alternately rocking and tearful.

The company is outstanding. In a season of amazing ensembles, this one is a standout. In principal roles, Melody A. Betts as Aunt Em and Evilene is a force to be reckoned with. Deborah Cox as Glinda is glamorous and powerful, particularly in delivering the show’s anthem “Believe in Yourself.” Wayne Brady as The Wiz has megawatt charm, even when he unapologetically admits his act is a sham.

As Dorothy’s friends, Avery Wilson as the Scarecrow is a wonderful bundle of energy and has incredible athleticism. Kyle Ramar Freeman as the Cowardly Lion is adorable, even when he’s singing about being a “Mean Ole Lion;” seems he just can’t help it. Phillip Johnson Richardson brings a level of complexity and depth to the Tinman that’s consistently touching in his quest for a heart. Then there’s Dorothy Nichelle Lewis, who has a great pop voice, an irresistible charm, and a sensitivity that always feels authentic.  The Playbill says Lewis is being introduced, and what an introduction.

There’s something else that makes this production especially poignant. L. Frank Baum wrote the original story as an allegory describing a nation in the latter years of the 19th century trying to find its way after a period of intensely challenging political upheaval. The story of the Wizard of Oz is, at its heart, a story of trying to negotiate all that chaos and conflict and hoping we can find our way safely home. If we ever needed to feel that hope, it’s now. 

The Wiz | Marquis Theatre | 210 West 46th Street | Tues, Thurs 7 p.m.; Weds 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.; Fri 8 p.m.; Sat 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun 3 p.m. | $79.95 and up | 2 hours, 30 mins, 1 intermission