Last night, I was lucky enough to be in the audience for SummerStage's "The Wiz: A Celebration In Dance and Music," presented in Central Park. As a long-time fan of the show, I'd been excited for this concert ever since it was announced. Not only did we get to see André de Shields and Dee Dee Bridgewater recreate the roles the originated in the original company, we also got to see all of George Faison's Tony Award-winning choreography thrillingly re-created for the first time in over 20 years.
It was amazing to be in a gathering of hundreds of people who all love the same thing, and the love for The Wiz last night was pretty palpable. The lines to get in were long even well over an hour before the show, and by the time showtime arrived, there was nary a empty spot to be found. A huge group of former Wiz cast members from the various productions through the years made up the center section of the lawn and it was very clear they were loving every second. They responded especially to the cast members who were returning to roles they had played on stage, but there was a lot of excitement and support for the newer cast members as well. Their energy was infectious and gave the entire evening a special air.
For those of you who couldn't make it to Central Park last night, here's my recap of the 10 most magical moments from The Wiz's 40th Anniversary Reunion Concert!
1. George Faison's Victory Lap
The concert began with an introduction from the Tony-winning choreographer himself, Dr. George Faison. The audience went wild as soon as he set foot on the stage, and Faison took the praise with glee. He circled the stage with his arms outstretched, giving back all the love that was being sent to him. He talked a bit about the importance of The Wiz to his career; his work on the show made him the first African American to win a Tony Award for Choreography, and The Wiz was the first and remains the only all-black musical to win Best Musical. He also talked about the show's enduring legacy and reach, saying that Dorothy is now "Asian, African, Hawaiian — she's everybody!"
2. The Tornado
The Tornado is The Wiz's first big dance number, and it started the evening off in a big way. Faison's creativity and sense of humor as a choreographer are evident from the piece's first moments, with a small group of female dancers taking center stage holding umbrellas turned inside out. A few minutes later, Khalia Campbell made a dramatic entrance as the eye of the tornado, a long flowing black cloth flowing from her body into the sky. The audience erupted into applause at the power of the image. Faison was able to have her traverse the stage and literally sweep Dorothy and the farmhouse into her train, no flying required. Campbell ended up on top of the farmhouse somehow balancing in an impressive full extension.
3. Phylicia Rashad
As we got to Oz, Phylicia Rashad joined us as the host of the evening, and our first connection to the original Broadway cast; Rashad was a munchkin and Glinda understudy in the premiere company. They projected a picture of Rashad in full costume on the back wall of the stage, to which Rashad quipped, "That's me over there. Me, or my daughter."
4. Darlesia Cearcy's "Soon As I Get Home"
The role of Dorothy was primarily played by Darlesia Cearcy, a performer last seen on Broadway in the original company of The Book of Mormon. As she sang "Soon As I Get Home," Dorothy's first big number, you could hear the audience realize what a killer voice she has. By the end, we were in the palm of her hand. She finished the number to riotous applause and several hundred new fans!
5. The Yellow Brick Road
In The Wiz, the yellow brick road is not merely a set piece. Faison realized them as four attendants who carry golden posts. They are most strikingly used in the show's most famous number, "Ease On Down the Road," which we get to hear no less than three times. To say the choreography to these numbers is thrilling is an understatement. They're a great example of how Faison was able to seamlessly fuse his concert dance background with the popular style and movement of 1975. Luckily that style has aged incredibly well. The attendants' stately posture and smooth coolness combined with the song's infectious energy to create a highly stylized and thrilling dance sequence. Faison also used them in the staging of the scenes that cover the group's journey to the Emerald City, making them at once characters as well as living, breathing set pieces.
6. The original poppies
The poppies in The Wiz are female dancers, ensnaring the Lion into their seductive dance. Faison left the casting of these roles a surprise prior to last night; the original Broadway ladies of the ensemble from 1975 reprised their roles for this dance sequence. When he introduced them, the audience went nuts, particularly the group of Wiz alumni. It was incredibly special to see them come back to this show after 40 years.
7. The Emerald City Ballet
As the four friends arrived in the Emerald City, George Faison and Phylicia Rashad came on stage to introduce the Emerald City Ballet. Faison described the Emerald City as "the land of the snobs — all the wannabes. Sounds like Atlanta Housewives!" The audience loved this comparison. The ensemble, now clad in green, made their entrance to perform a fantastic piece of dance as the ostentatious fame-obsessed citizens of the Emerald City.
8. André De Shields
It's been 40 years since The Wiz debuted on Broadway, but to hear André De Shields recreate his numbers in his performance of the title role, you'd never know it. He made his entrance for "So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard" wearing the same white unitard and cape outfit that he wore for the Wiz tribute at the Gypsy of the Year celebration earlier in 2014. In the second act, he sang a thrilling "Believe In Yourself" and danced pretty vivaciously while performing "Y'All Got It." He owns this role, and he confirmed that last night to a very excited audience.
9. Dee Dee Bridgewater
Dee Dee Bridgewater holds the distinction of winning a Tony Award for an extremely brief performance. In The Wiz, Glinda only enters the story at the very end, singing "A Rested Body is a Rested Mind," the "Believe In Yourself" reprise and then leaves. Her performance totals no more than 10 minutes total onstage. Nevertheless, the award was well deserved. Bridgewater, like de Shields, was in incredible voice and blew both of her numbers out of the water. She made her entrance, wearing an impressive emerald-green sequined gown, on the shoulders of some handsome men. The audience ate it up!
10. Inaya Day
Dorothy's biggest songs, "Be a Lion" and "Home," were performed by Inaya Day, a studio singer famous for her vocal performances on several house music tracks and a former understudy to original Dorothy Stephanie Mills (during the 1990s tour). She sang both numbers with incredible emotion and vocal ability to the loud approval of the audience, particularly the Wiz alumni section that clearly held several of her former castmates. "Home" in particular, as the finale of the concert, received an almost-instant standing ovation from the entire audience.
If you couldn't be there last night, don't fret! You've got two more chances to check out the concert. They're in Marcus Garvey Park Aug. 13-14. For more information, check out the SummerStage website.
(Logan Culwell is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research and curator of Playbill Vault. Please visit LoganCulwell.com.)