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U students rehearsing The Wiz

Director Dominic Taylor with student actors (L to R) Sabrina Crews, David Rue, and Lynn Suemitsu. The Wiz runs through April 19 at the Rarig Center.

Ruby red slippers and Yellow Brick Road, with a twist

U theatre and dance students perform new version of The Wizard of Oz

By Pauline Oo

April 16, 2008

Toto wasn't there, but the rest of the Wizard of Oz gang was: Dorothy, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Man (a.k.a. Tin One). This week, April 16-19, University Theatre and Dance continues its production of "The Wiz," an eye-opening, head-scratching take on the 1975 Broadway musical "The Wiz," which was adapted from L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

University of Minnesota assistant professor Dominic Taylor directs the show, diversifying the all-black cast of the original Wiz and transforming Oz into a college campus. But the story is the same as the one most, if not all, of us know by heart. Dorothy is carried away by a tornado to a land of Munchkins (university students) and wicked witches (one of whom is a teacher), where she meets three others who also feel that they are missing something. The motley crew sets off to find the all-knowing, all-powerful Wizard of Oz, who turns out to be a phony from Omaha, Nebraska.

"The Wiz" ran for four years and had more than 1,600 performances on Broadway, winning seven Tony awards before being made into a film featuring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as Scarecrow. According to the New York Times, "'The Wiz' was hardly a great musical in 1975, but it had something to say, and it said it with verve and integrity."

In the University's version, it's hard not to miss the references to African-American culture. Listen to the way the characters speak or watch the way they sometimes behave. Tune in to the lyrics of a few of the songs, and pay attention to some of the scenes. For example, in the opening scene, Dorothy (played by U student Ivory Doublette) and Aunt Em are seen collecting bed linens with historical themes printed on them, such as Brown v. Board of Education, that were hung from a tree with African inspired masks, baskets, and statues.

Among the lead performers, Nathan Shrake was an audience favorite during opening night on April 11. Shrake, one of the cast's non African-Americans, captured the Lion's comedy and cowardice well, eliciting the loudest laughs from the almost packed house. Lynn Suemitsu, the Tin One, had one of the best voices--strong and clear, yet ever so tender and soothing when the song called for it. For example, she mesmerized the audience with "What Would I Do If I Could Feel?"

Taking the prize for stage presence is Sabrina Crews, as the Wiz. She cuts a striking figure with her red hair, saucer eyes, and perpetual pout, but more importantly, she has the strut and command of a Las Vegas showwoman. Kudos also go to choreographer Uri Sands for his vibrant dance numbers. They always matched the music's soulful exuberance.

Like most opening night performances, this one highlighted some elements that need attention, like the enunciation of some of the actors and the sound mixing.

But as the audience members walked out, talking about what they had just seen, it was obvious that the director had achieved his mission: to get people thinking.


The Wiz runs through April 19 at the Rarig Center's Stoll Thrust Theatre in the University of Minnesota's West Bank Arts Quarter on the Twin Cities campus. Tickets (general admission seating) are $12-$19.

To buy your ticket or for more information, call the University Arts Ticket Office at 612-624-2345 or see theatre.umn.edu.