Craig Zadan and Neil Meron had something to prove with their NBC holiday musical this year. After the massive success of “The Sound of Music” in 2013, “Peter Pan” stumbled in the ratings (despite improving creatively). With “The Wiz,” the two producers had to demonstrate to the industry that the musical special can be viable on a yearly basis. Not only did the broadcast improve by 3 million viewers and a full point in the key demographic, but it brought a new sense of creativity and theatricality that hasn’t been seen in years prior.
“The Wiz” follows the well-known story of “The Wizard of Oz,” and this new production featured the classic score alongside an updated, sharp book by Harvey Fierstein (who wrote the book for the Broadway hit “Kinky Boots”). Zadan and Meron filled the cast with many familiar names, each of whom brought down the house during their ephemeral scenes. From Queen Latifah (“Chicago”) as The Wiz, to Mary J. Blige (“Empire”) as the Wicked Witch of the West, Amber Riley (“Glee”) as the Good Witch of the North and Uzo Aduba (“Orange is the New Black”) as the Good Witch of the South, each had a showstopping number that showcased their powerful voices.
However, the standout performance was by newcomer Shanise Williams as Dorothy. She struggled in the beginning to gain momentum in her dialogue, but once she became more comfortable onstage, a star was born. She closed the show with the song “Home,” which she sang with a comparable strength and emotion to some of her more seasoned co-stars.
The biggest choice Zadan and Meron made from last year was switching from a more television-like set to a proscenium staging — a normal stage. This choice was likely driven by this production’s Broadway aspirations, but it ended up enhancing the show’s theatricality. Instead of rotating between already-built sets, they moved on and off the stage with projections in the background. The sets were physically smaller, but more intricate with little details, especially in the Wiz’s chamber and the Wicked Witch’s castle. The costumes were more complex, as well, and will likely result in a Tony nomination for designer Paul Tazewell when the production moves to Broadway.
The proscenium staging also affected the musical numbers, with stage director Kenny Leon (who won a Tony for the latest revival of “A Raisin in the Sun”) and choreographer Fatima Robinson (“Dreamgirls”), who used the smaller space to create a more theatrical broadcast than in years past. Robinson’s choreography brought each of the numbers to life, painting pictures which looked beautiful from above. This is especially true in the number “Brand New Day,” which had high-energy dancing that couldn’t have been easy that late in the evening. Cirque du Soleil partnered with NBC on the broadcast and upcoming Broadway production, and their acrobats produced a certain dynamicism which made sequences like the tornado impactful.
Still, one of “Peter Pan” ’s biggest problems remained prevalent in “The Wiz”: the television direction, this year by Matthew Diamond (“The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure”). The change to the proscenium created grand and expansive staging, but at times, the camera failed to capture them. Instead of pulling back and letting the big dance numbers make the impact with sheer spectacle, they used close-ups and focused too much on smaller aspects of the big picture. It was confusing, especially in scenes like the Tornado. It seemed like the camera focused on Dorothy flying instead of on what the dancers on stage were doing.
Despite all of the problems, about halfway through “The Wiz,” I stopped watching out of an obligation to the musical form and started watching because I loved what I saw. “The Wiz” proved to me that Zadan and Meron know what makes a good show, and I can’t wait to see what they do next year.