NBC’s “The Wiz Live!”, a television adaptation of the 1975 Broadway musical, “The Wiz” premiered on December 3, 2015 live from the Grumman Studios in Bethpage, New York to over 11.5 million viewers across the nation. The special was co-directed by dancer/ choreographer Matthew Diamond (who handled the television direction duties) and Kenny Leon (who oversaw the stage direction), the former artistic director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and founder of our city’s True Colors Theatre Company. The three-hour live telecast featured Ne-Yo as the Tinman, Mary J. Blige as The Wicked Witch of the West and Queen Latifah in the title role. “The Wiz,” the third installment to NBC’s annual live musical series, was a beautifully crafted, relatively well-received, and widely-spoken about show.
The most notable and well-executed piece of the new production was the overall effort to modernize the show in almost every aspect possible. The modernization of everything from the script, with the usage of words such as “squad” to choreography going as far as Ne-Yo dabbing and the NaeNae being featured in many of the ensemble’s pieces. The modernization spread into the soundtrack adding a jazzy soul, refreshing hip hop and an electronic taste. The musical featured every song from the original Broadway production plus “You Can’t Win” from the first film adaptation and added a new number, “We Got It,” composed by Ne-Yo, Harvey Mason Jr, Elijah Kelley and Stephen Oremus. The soundtrack also features “Everybody Rejoice/It’s A Brand New Day” composed by Luther Vandross.
Technically, the show was nearly seamless. The scenery transitions (sets were moved in and out of place on tracks) were unbelievably smooth. The set design was artistically simple and straightforward with most of the suspension of disbelief originating in the effects on the electric backdrop panels. Since it was a live TV broadcast, the front lighting remained constant and the stage lights were beautifully executed, using vivid colors and moving lights. The costumes were exemplary, particularly the ones worn by the Cirque du Soleil cast members throughout the musical. The only technical flaws I spotted were a camera in a shot near the show’s opening (it was remedied by a quick camera switch) and a cast member shaking one of the set pieces as it moved off the stage. Despite these two small mistakes (and probably many more that went unnoticed by anyone without a script and a cue sheet), the show was technically executed very well.
The all-star cast was strong and worked exceptionally well together. Particularly impressive was Ne-Yo’s performance as Tinman, reassuring the general public that he has not lost any of his dynamic, unique, timeless voice and dancing. Elijah Kelley’s performance as the Scarecrow was exceptional. Not only was he up against the reputation of the performance of the late Michael Jackson (who performed the role in the original 1978 film), but he executed the role perfectly. Kelley’s first number, “You Can’t Win,” highlighting his vocals and dancing definitely met, if not exceeded, expectations. I was less impressed with Stephanie Mills’ performance as Auntie Em and Mary J. Blige’s performance as The Wicked Witch of the West. While the vocals were definitely beautiful, the acting didn’t necessarily strike me as very good, but felt forced and relatively dry.
Newcomer Shanice Williams played the lead role of Dorothy. Her performance was brilliant for an unknown performer. Her acting performance was exemplary and completely embodied her character of 21st century Dorothy. Her vocals were rather impressive, but she appeared rather cautious as she sang. Overall her television debut was exciting and impressive.
If you missed the December 3 airing, NBC will be rebroadcasting “The Wiz Live!” on December 19 at 8 p.m. If you are wondering if you should dedicate your Saturday evening to watching this televised adaptation of “The Wiz,” I suggest you view it, especially if this is your first time viewing a televised musical. The production team did an exceptional job at accommodating the needs of a live television production as well as doing justice to the original and highly acclaimed 1975 Broadway musical. The cast did an exceptional job of executing their roles and the overall show benefited greatly from the efforts of everyone on the creative team.