IN the aftermath of Katrina, the sight of an African American family ambushed by a natural disaster can't help carrying political baggage. But racial concerns hardly register in Des McAnuff's update of the unpredictable theatrical twister known as "The Wiz."
Unpredictable might seem like a strange description for William F. Brown and Charlie Smalls' R&B; version of "The Wizard of Oz," written expressly for an all-black cast. The 1975 Broadway musical overcame tepid reviews to become a long-running crossover hit, winning seven Tonys (including best musical) and launching the career of a diminutive recording artist with a blessedly big voice named Stephanie Mills.
Remounts of "The Wiz," including the show's short-lived 1984 Broadway return, haven't exactly eased on down the road, however. And the 1978 Sidney Lumet movie -- starring Diana Ross in the leading role and Michael Jackson as an especially light on his toes scarecrow -- famously flopped.
The La Jolla Playhouse revival, which opened Wednesday at the Mandell Weiss Theatre amid whispers of a Broadway transfer, tries to reverse the Oz hex by reimagining the piece as a stunningly designed concert. It showcases a beautiful, high-cheekboned Nikki M. James, a likable young performer who may not give Dorothy much distinctive personality but whose voice soars.
The often-entertaining production also offers one mesmerizing supporting performance in Michael Benjamin Washington's Tinman, who emerges from a heap of computer parts to sing, act and cavort with equal effectiveness. Rashad Naylor's Scarecrow, Tituss Burgess' Lion and E. Faye Butler's Evillene (a.k.a. the Wicked Witch of the West) have their moments too. And if David Alan Grier doesn't make much of an impression as the Wiz, at least Orville Mendoza earns a few laughs playing his snarling gatekeeper.
The guiding sensibility here isn't so much Afrocentric as multicultural (with a racially diverse cast that could launch a new Benetton campaign). Don't think progressive (as in Black Barbie or the '70s sitcom "Good Times"); think futuristic (as in, we've all been etherealized, courtesy of the World Wide Web). A newcomer to the show could be forgiven for assuming that the Emerald City lies at the bottom of a cyber hole instead of somewhere over the rainbow.
Condensed to a little over two hours, McAnuff's electric if not particularly emotionally stirring rendering features a dazzlingly innovative multimedia staging that revealed a few kinks on opening night. Twice the show was stopped for glitches, with the director having to grab a microphone and play emcee as a stray drilling sound was tracked down and a computer rebooted.
Robert Brill (billed as the "scenic and environmental designer") has reconfigured the theater so that the yellow brick road runs through the audience. It's a nice touch, though it leaves little room for dancing, and Sergio Trujillo's choreography seems clumsily confined.
Brill and projection designer Michael Clark, however, succeed magnificently in creating a 21st century look for the show. The array of technical wizardry on a darkened stage outfitted with video screens may have a disembodying effect, but it lends freshness to familiar antics.
Dramatically, the work may have been boiled down a bit too much. At times, the new version feels like musical-theater postcards from Oz. But then Brown's clunky book was never easy to make fly.
Mostly, this latest "Wiz" amounts to a celebration of Smalls' music, which has been given a subtle yet highly effective hip-hop face-lift by musical director Ron Melrose, with singing that ranges from good to transcendent. Much on display is top-drawer, yet something fundamental seems missing.
When "The Wiz" was first done, it was historic, not simply because an all-black cast was triumphing on Broadway but because they were doing so in a classic that Judy Garland had made a staple of childhood. McAnuff approaches the material as though the time for cultural correctives of this kind is behind us. Apparently we've come to point where we can all appreciate "The Wiz" on purely theatrical grounds, potholed though it may be.
Yet the modernizing isn't completely apolitical. Pointed references to the war in Iraq have been layered in, there's an "Ozland Security" force curtailing civil rights and the show's Luther Vandross number, "Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day)," has been transformed into a fantasy about what life will be like when a tyrant is overthrown and abused military personnel are relieved of their unnecessary hardships. But the memory of New Orleans and what it exposed about the myth of equality seem to belong to another universe entirely.
Early on, when Dorothy finds her program rudely interrupted by an ominous weather report, the satire is all about her addiction to the endless channels of satellite TV. And when the winds come to transport her and Toto (dancingly played by Albert Blaise Cattafi) to Oz, the lesson is the usual L. Frank Baum one of learning to trust the power that resides within you. Obviously, there's no need to touch on Katrina directly, but when the tornado hits, it's hard for us to ignore recent history.
Striving to be inclusive, the utopian production casts the good witch Addaperle with Heather Lee, a white actress who's like a cross between Shelley Long and Carol Kane, decked in wacky Cyndi Lauper threads. Her ridiculously kooky performance seems bizarre even in a land overrun by flying monkeys.
But how does "The Wiz" speak to us today? I'm not sure that a white director, even one as abundantly talented as McAnuff, is the person to most compellingly answer this. Hypothetically speaking, a staging by George C. Wolfe might be just as otherworldly, but I'd expect he'd confront the issue of race with more complexity than simply providing Burgess' big sissy Lion with some "Oz bling."
Where: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Call for exceptions.
Ends: Nov. 12
Price: $48 to $72
Contact: (858) 550-1010 or wwwlajollaplayhouse.com
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
E. Faye Butler...Evillene
Albert Blaise Cattafi...Toto
David Alan Grier...The Wiz
Nikki M. James...Dorothy
Heather Lee... Addaperle
Orville Mendoza...Uncle Henry/
Valarie Pettiford...Aunt Em/
Book by William F. Brown. Music by Charlie Smalls. Directed by Des McAnuff. Choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Musical direction, vocal arrangements and new incidental music by Ron Melrose. Orchestrator Harold Wheeler. Sets by Robert Brill. Costumes by Paul Tazewell. Lights by Howell Binkley. Sound by Peter Fitzgerald. Production stage manager Frank Hartenstein.