No network does live television better than NBC. From Saturday Night Live to Undateable, and everything in between, NBC is the one network that is still holding on to the hope that live television can be a regular event for the 21st century family. The most welcome edition to these live events have been the musicals. A couple years ago, NBC premiered The Sound of Music to record high ratings. Last year’s production of Peter Pan garnered stronger reviews, but significantly lower ratings. This year, with The Wiz, I am predicting (also, hoping) that NBC has finally reached a comfortable balance between critical acclaim and high ratings. With a talented, truly qualified unknown as Dorothy, surrounded by a cast of famous singers and actors, I think NBC has finally figured out the formula to creating a production that both theatre aficionados and “regular Americans” can watch together.
I don’t know about ratings, since I am literally typing this review mere minutes after Dorothy found her place back to Kansas (spoiler alert!), but I can tell you that this was truly a wonderful television event. And as someone who only has faint memories of the movie version starring Diana Ross, I think this production is a good way of introducing the actual musical to a wider audience. On a technical level, this show was pretty much as wonderful as the last two. While the two previous live productions utilized multiple sets, The Wiz Live did all their business on one stage, setting the scene with the help of a large LED lit backdrop. However, the show didn’t look any less “fake” or “cheap.” The sets were big, bright and elaborate. The costumes and makeup were, for the most part, off the chain. And the cinematography and editing were mostly well done, even though, yes, there were a couple mistakes/awkward shots.
But the performances by the cast were uniformly excellent. While Peter Pan made us sit through long, awkward periods of Christopher Walken…doing whatever he was doing, the cast of The Wiz didn’t feature a bad egg. Stephanie Mills started things off beautifully with “The Feeling We Once Had.” Amber Riley and Mary J. Blige (as Addaperle and Evillene respectively) belted their songs like no one’s business. Queen Latifah was one part dominant and strong, and another part vulnerable, giving us a Wiz with layers we sometimes forget exist for the character. Elijah Kelley, who impressed me with his performance in Hairspray years back, must have done Michael proud as the Scarecrow. Ne-Yo mostly surprised me as the Tin Man (although, because of that southern drawl, diction was an issue). And, obviously, the always great David Alan Grier was a nice comedic relief as the lion (he’s already become a meme). However, his “Be A Lion” duet with Dorothy was an emotional highlight.
And all the performers, from the company to the Cirque du Soleil dancers were amazing all around. But, in my opinion, the two standouts were Shanice Williams and Uzo Aduba. I’ve always been a fan of Glinda’s signature tune “Believe in Yourself;” and Aduba didn’t fail me one bit. What Aduba lacks in “pitch perfectness,” she makes up for it with her power, her strength, her poise, her earnestness, her everything! I mean, Aduba is such a slice of sunshine, I already had tears streaming down my cheek the moment she floated in from the sky wearing that Emmy worthy golden dress. Maybe I was crying because Aduba’s rise to fame has been utterly inspiring; and at this moment, she probably has more eyeballs focused on her than she ever had in her life.
But the star that was really born tonight was Shanice Williams, as Dorothy. In a strange way, Williams sort of reminds me of Melissa Benoist in Supergirl. Williams is just a breath of fresh air. She lights up the stage. She’s a positive presence. Her acting is really great here. But, obviously, everyone’s going to be talking about her singing for weeks to come. And her final rendition of “Home” is utterly star making. Like, most people, I was tweeting while watching this production, and I was following Shanice’s Twitter page. She’s gone from having maybe 5000 followers to over 13,000 (of course, by the time you’re reading this, it’ll probably go up even further). The message of the show may be “There’s no place like home,” but 19 year old Shanice Williams also proves that dreams can come true. Her life is about to change forever.
So, yeah, I’m pretty stoked about this one. Keep in mind, I actually loved Sound of Music (sorta in the minority on that one) and Peter Pan was a treat. All I can say is that people loving The Wiz more than those two productions is certainly a positive. It means that NBC will do this again (maybe they should consider Ragtime or The King and I). And that’s great, because in an age when family television programming is getting the short end of the stick when it comes to support and money, The Wiz proves that high quality family friendly programs can still exist and thrive in the world.