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This revival of the 1970s Broadway hit aims squarely for crowd pleasing

The Wiz

Book by William F. Brown; Music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls. Based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Through Nov. 7 at Center Stage

On the opening night

of Center Stage’s

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The Wiz

, departing artistic director Irene Lewis introduced the show with a stern directive. “Don’t be too harsh on the Totos,” she said, referring to the two dogs alternating performances. “These are not professional dogs.” As the show opened, a frightened terrier made a brief appearance, took one look at the packed auditorium, and rushed offstage, to a roar of laughter. The dog declined to visit Oz, only reappearing once Dorothy (Kristin N. Dowtin) returned to Kansas. Toto’s intransigence was perhaps the only false—though very funny—note of the evening.

Center Stage’s production of the Broadway classic is a colorful blast from the past, packed with eye-candy costumes, fantastic dance numbers, and, of course, the all-important funk. Many members of the cast have performed nationally and on Broadway, and it shows—though at least one of the crowd favorites, the Scarecrow, is a Baltimorean. Children of the 1970s may have forgotten just how many churchy, inspirational numbers there are in

The Wiz

, but sitting through a few Kenny G-style songs is a small price to pay for the pure joy of the dancier parts.

In this production of

The Wiz

, everything from the costumes to the set to the vernacular of the characters references an urban setting, often in subtle and witty ways. The backdrop is a brick wall covered with paint, and when we first discover the Tin Man, he’s lying disassembled in a dumpster. (Dorothy uses a discarded can of Pam to loosen up his joints.) The set designers have made the theater a vibrant 3D space: Characters descend from above, rise up from below in an elevator-like contraption—which serves as a jail, a phone booth, and the delivery system for a FedEx box through the course of the show—and, at times, run through the aisles. Dorothy’s house is a small model on wheels. When the tornado comes—in the form of a circulating group of dancers in ragged, gray, wind-inspired ruffles—they simply spin the house around with Dorothy trapped inside.

Though nearly every performance is a good one, the Scarecrow (Eric B. Anthony) and the Lion (Wayne W. Pretlow) are the crowd-pleasers. Jaws literally dropped throughout the auditorium after Dorothy helped the Scarecrow down from his lofty perch. Anthony lurched gracefully across the stage, fell into the splits, bounced into a high kick, and generally gave a convincing impression that he was as flexible and light on his feet as a man made of straw. His dancing throughout the production rivals that of Michael Jackson, who played the Scarecrow in the 1978 movie version. Coupled with his stage presence and hilarious country drawl, Anthony is the most electric member of the cast.

On the mopier, lumbering end of the spectrum is Pretlow as the Lion. With dreadlocks pulled up into cute little ears, a pair of coveralls with a tail attached, work boots, and a big rhinestone medallion around his neck, Pretlow is a loveable, frontin’ genius. When he sings “Mean Ole Lion,” walking around with his chest puffed out, pumping his fist at the audience, you want to give him a hug and tell him courage isn’t everything. Throughout the show Pretlow produces real tears, which he dabs with his tail, and generally lends a good deal of heart to the show.

The costumes, particularly those of the minor characters, are often funny all by themselves. The munchkins, for instance, are rotund rather than miniature. They roll around the stage in exaggerated children’s outfits made large with hoops. When they do a saucy butt wag, goofy bloomers are revealed. The winged monkeys are also brilliant: They appear in the guise of a motorcycle gang, with slicked-up afros, bat wings, and leather jackets. Rather than clutter the stage with real bikes, they carry just the handlebars, equipped with headlights.

The slowest parts of the two-hour-and-20-minute production are the songs that lack dancing and that infectious wakka wakka beat. There are, unfortunately, quite a number of these. But, well, it’s Broadway, and the cast and five-piece ensemble belt these out as energetically as they can. And after Dorothy kills the wicked witch Evillene (Gwen Stewart), the cast breaks into perhaps the most hopeful, catchy song of the show, “Everybody Rejoice.” The lyrics—“Can’t you feel a brand new day?”—are projected in glowing letters on the wall,

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-style, and the cast dances and sings in a joyous, cynicism-free way that, sadly, feels dated. But dated in a way that makes you want to break out the Walkman and the platform shoes and join right in. ■

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