By Sarah Downs

The Wiz has returned to Broadway, and boy is it fun – and boy is it exhausting.  Director Schele Williams has taken a “more is more” attitude to this classic show, with emphasis on bright color, brassy sound and lots and lots of dancing.  Yes it’s over the top, but with some updated references in the script, and an excellent cast and ensemble, this Wiz mostly succeeds.  Where it falters is in the curation of moments.  The show needs more lows to balance the highs, and would benefit from a stronger overall arc.

A modern take on the story of the Wizard of Oz, The Wiz broke new ground when it debuted in 1975 (winning 7 Tony Awards), bringing the funk to the beloved story of a young girl who goes on an adventure to find her way back home, and who ends up finding so much more along the way.  As Dorothy travels down the Yellow Brick Road with compatriots Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, she discovers that the Road is in fact a path to self.

Nichelle Lewis, in an impressive Broadway debut as Dorothy, both opens and closes the show singing alone on a bare stage, For one so young to have the poise to carry this off is striking.  Lewis keeps her feet on the ground, effectively conveying youth, and maintaining a calm and believable innocence throughout.  Of course one major draw is to this production is the presence of quick-witted, charismatic Wayne Brady at the Wiz, and he does not disappoint.  The role is smaller than I had expected, but Brady uses his time well.  He brings his magnetic personality to bear as Oz the showman and Oz the man behind the curtain, effortlessly dancing, singing and charming the crowd.   Indeed, dance is central to the show.  Choreographer Jaquel Knight has pulled out all the stops in clever, exuberant choreography performed by an exceptional group of dancerrs.

In a star turn Avery Wilson as Scarecrow delivers a performance that is larger than life but not out of control.  Loose limbed and athletic Wilson maintains a kind of skeleton-free floppiness as befits a scarecrow.  In Timberland boots, no less.  His singing matches his physicality, both in quality of sound and style.  As the Tin Man, Phillip Johnson Richardson cuts a contrasting figure, with sweetness and a down-to-earth urban flair, adding a welcome texture to the overall look of the show.  Kyle Ramar Freeman as the ‘fraidy-cat Lion, alternates sarcasm with flashes of cat like temperament, often striking a winsome Shirley Temple pose.  Their nemesis Evillene (Melody A. Betts) fairly chews the scenery in the expression of her wickedness.  Betts is nothing if not committed.

Dorothy’s guides through Oz, the sparkling Glinda (a glamorous Deborah Cox) and the fun loving Addapearle (an effervescent Allyson Kaye Daniel) introduce Dorothy to the psychedelic paradise that is Oz.  Nothing is subtle here, whether it be the saturated hues of Ryan J. O’Gara‘s lighting design or the whimsical, if spare, sets by Hannah Beachler.  Costume designer Sharen Davis leans unrepentantly into the ‘more is more’ ethos with bright patterns, chiffon, sequins, velvets and crystal.  (I can just picture Davis wandering in a trance through the aisles of Mood fabrics, saying “I’ll take one of everything.”)

However, riotous color can easily turn to just plain riot, especially when combined with overlong production numbers, lots of hard belt singing, and repetitive vocal stylings which all begin to sound the same.  Half way through you begin to worry that the wheels are going to fall off.  Of course, you’d have to be clinically dead not to want to tap your toes to Joseph Joubert’s dazzling musical arrangements, but I would have preferred also some moments of quiet magic and a sense of wonder; less oversinging and more storytelling.

The Wiz, music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls and book by William F. Brown.  Adapted from the book The Wizard of Oz, by Frank L. Baum.  With Nichelle Lewis, Wayne Brady, Deborah Cox, Melody A. Betts, Kyle Ramar Freeman,  Phillip Johnson Richardson, Avery Wilson, Allyson Kaye Daniel.

Set design by Hannah Beachler, costume designs by Sharen Davis, lighting design by Ryan J O’Gara, sound design by Jon Weston, makeup design by Kirk Cambridge Del-Pesche.

At the Marquis Theatre (210 W 46th St).  For tickets go to www.wizmusical.com.  Run time 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.