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'The Wiz' is a tale of two acts

There’s an old saying in the theater: The hardest thing in life is to write a good second act. A case in point is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s new production of “The Wiz.

At the intermission in Saturday night’s opening performance, despite a shortage of first-rate songs — an exception being the infectious “Ease on Down the Road” — I was charmed by the show’s style, energy and verve.

Director Robert O’Hara made some innovative choices in adapting the 1970s musical to the limitations imposed by the OSF’s Elizabethan stage, the cool costumes of Dede M. Ayite were to die for, and Ashley D. Kelley’s elfin Dorothy was singing up a storm as the little girl who wants to go home to Kansas.

Then things went downhill at warp speed. The wicked witch Evillene (Yvette Monique Clark) wasn’t scary, the narrative halted dead in its tracks for forgettable songs, and some scenes (funky monkeys dancing aimlessly in a forest) were pointless. The life went out of the show like hot air leaking from a wizard’s balloon somewhere over Omaha.

“The Wiz” is a groundbreaking African-American adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel best-known through the 1939 film classic with Judy Garland. With a book by William F. Brown and music and lyrics mainly by Charlie Smalls, it’s the classic Hero’s Journey re-imagined with an urban vibe and ersatz 1970s-style soul music.

The 1975 production opened to harsh criticism and almost closed after its first night but was saved by the then-new combination of TV commercials and an infusion of cash from 20th Century Fox. It went on to win seven Tony awards and, after a long run, inspire many revivals and a1978 film with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson that was an epic flop.

The show begins with a long prologue delivered by a crack nine-piece band behind the set taking its cues from conductor Bert Cross II, who is stationed stage-right at the front of the audience. The sound is tight throughout.

There are entertaining moments: Clark (who doubles as Auntie Em) making like Mavis Staples on “The Feeling We Once Had;” dancers done up as lightning bolts becoming a cyclone and literally carrying Dorothy away to Oz; Michele Mais as a funny Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North, welcoming Dorothy to Oz with some cleverly costumed Munchkins and a funny gag with the silver slippers.

Dorothy meets a new ally in successive scenes, each getting a song of his/her own by way of introduction. The best is the lubricating of the rusty Tinman (the multi-talented Rodney Gardiner) accomplished by Dorothy with an oil can in a scene rich in wink-wink double entendre.

A scene in which the Yellow Brick Road leads Dorothy and company into the audience is a hoot.

Elements of the show (costumes, dance, scenes, jokes) incorporate styles from different eras. Scarecrow shows up in what looks like a crucifixion reference wearing an Elizabethan ruff. Dances mix old-fashioned court styles with ‘70s funk with contemporary moves. Creatures such as Kalidahs, mice and monkeys all do their thing, but their intentions are sometimes as unclear as a Kansas sky in March.

A scene in which Lion gets stoned on opium while passing through a field of poppies is hard to read and oddly unfunny, considering that stoner jokes are low-hanging fruit. Although having Lion see a rainbow in a reference to the 1939 musical’s most famous song is a clever touch.

The mise en scène is a mashup of Rocky Horror and Mad Max as if designed for Prince and Carmen Miranda. It sounds better than it plays.

Apart from the dead spots and all the confusion, “The Wiz” has a fatal story flaw. The villain shows up too late (she’s not prefigured here by a mean Kansas neighbor) and doesn’t require the heroine to struggle much. When she’s finally defeated, it’s as easy as swatting a fly.

“The Wiz” relies on spectacle rather than story. That is the book’s flaw, not the production’s. The costumes are eye-popping, and the music sounds good given the shortage of strong songs. But we don’t go to the theater simply for spectacle. “The Wiz” simply doesn’t have anything new or provocative to add to the old story.

Here’s a thought. There is now more time between us and “The Wiz” than there was between the debut of “The Wiz” and the 1939 film. Maybe the time has come for Dorothy to stay home in Kansas.

—Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

From left, Dorothy (Ashley D. Kelley), Scarecrow (J. Cameron Barnett), Lion (Christiana Clark and Tinman (Rodney Gardiner) in OSF's production of 'The Wiz.' Photo by Dale Robinette