In his positive review of Center Stage's revival of "The Wiz," my colleague Tim Smith asked, "didn't 'The Wiz' generate a stupefying, impossibly dreary movie musical?"

You are correct, sir.


In Sidney Lumet's "The Wiz" (1978), the first thing Dorothy does when she lands in Oz, as in most other versions of the story, is to kill (inadvertently) the Wicked Witch of the East. But she should have aimed straight at the Wicked Witch of "est." Remember Erhard Seminars Training? Lumet inflicted his movie with all the self-help jargon of the 1970s.

Dorothy tells the Scarecrow that he's just a victim of "negative thinking" -- that's why he thinks he has no brain -- and she repeats the same message to the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man as he searches for a heart.

At the time Lumet wrote, "For me, personally, it didn't matter whether Dorothy was 8 years old, as (L. Frank) Baum wrote her, or 15 years old, when Judy Garland played her, or 24, as Diane Ross plays her. Because that search for self-knowledge is true for people at all ages... Even though Diana could look 15 on screen if she wanted to, we didn't want to tell a story about a search for self-knowledge with Diana playing a fake age..." As if 24 were Diana Ross' real age in 1977 and 1978.

The funniest thing about that defense is that Ross actually does, in effect, play a kid. Her character, a 24-year-old Harlem schoolteacher, is a home-body who has buttoned her feelings up tight. Though she's supposed to be teaching kindergarten, you have the feeling that even a 5-year-old could teach her a few things. In the stage "Wiz" Dorothy is still a restless Kansas farm girl blown to Oz by a twister. Ross' Dorothy isn't restless at all. She's never gone south of 125th Street. When a hurricane-force blizzard -- yes, a white tornado -- whisks her away to Oz, Oz is supposed to be downtown.

But the wonders she encounters there are mostly extensions of the same urban chaos she'd find in any part of New York City circa '78. A subway station with murderous pillars, trash cans and fuse-boxes, or a poppy-parlor whorehouse, function more as campy variations on the 1939 film than as fantastic images or suspense gimmicks or personalized expressions of Dorothy's inner fears.

Michael Jackson's Scarecrow has a sweet, supple temperament and some funny moves, like a low bow-legged knee bend when he has to hitch up his pants and his legs. Nipsey Russell has a surprisingly smooth step for a Tin Man -- he's now a mechanical carney entertainer instead of a tin woodsman, and his trouper's confident manner makes you believe he lives on oil.

These two give the film its freshest moments, yet after Jackson's Scarecrow is sawed in half, and Russell's Tin Man is pressed into a steel pancake, we barely get a chance to register their recovery. The next minute they're hopping around with reborn sweat-shop slaves (this film's version of the Winkies), who, snake-like, shuck their old skins and emerge as firm-bodied dancers in jock straps and bikinis.

Ted Ross' Lion is effective only when mimicking Bert Lahr's. Richard Pryor plays a small but pivotal role. Whenever I see this film, Pryor's look of what-am-I-doing-here? panic echoes my feelings exactly.

Am I being too hard on this film? Does anyone out there harbor any affection for it? Has the memory of it influenced your decision to see Center Stage's "The Wiz?" (According to Tim, it shouldn't.)

1977 set photo of Nipsey Russell, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson