Definitely follow this yellow brick road to the Grandel Theatre

For the News-DemocratJuly 19, 2013 

With powerhouse vocalists and a spunky, colorful ensemble, "The Wiz" sparkles on the intimate Grandel Theatre stage. It's no wonder the Black Repertory Theatre production was extended for a couple more weeks, now through July 28, for the musical is a bonafide crowd-pleaser.

Director Ron Himes, founder of the Black Rep, injected his company's take on this 1975 Broadway benchmark with attitude, some '70s funk, an abundance of soul and good cheer. To appeal to new audiences, he has expertly staged this retelling of the enduring "The Wizard of Oz," which captivated people of all ages since Frank Baum's novel was published in 1900. To see children and adults react with such glee to this show during Sunday's matinee was joyous.

You can feel the performers' delight in portraying their roles -- from the radiant Stephanie Stephens as sweet Dorothy, the entertainer extraordinaire J. Samuel Davis as The Wiz, and flamboyant Herman Gordon as cuddly Cowardly Lion to the life force Raphaelle Darden as big bad mama Evillene (the Wicked Witch of the West) and comical Linda Kennedy as a ditzy Addaperle, a good witch.

The small ensemble is very strong, filled with exceptional dancers -- particularly Chivas Merchant-Buckman, Kevin Hamilton, Prince Lyons, Keelan Williams and John Swapshire. One of the show's innovations is to make the Yellow Brick Road live characters, and the three young men in yellow-bricked overalls excelled at their task. The Tornado and Emerald City are also introduced through dance as well.

Back in 1975, "The Wiz" by Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and opened the door for more diversity on Broadway. The show's score is filled with such timeless songs as "Home," which Sarah Stephens hits out of the park, the fun "Ease on Down the Road," and "Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day."

Because The Black Rep extended its run, some of the performers from original spring run had to be replaced. Alicia Reve took over the Scarecrow, and she is well-suited for the nimble demands of the role. Leslie Johnson fills the role of the Tinman with ease -- and he played it in the 2000 production, as did The Wiz, J. Samuel Davis. The vibrant Davis has been in all five shows the Black Rep produced this year for their 36th season, and he's a charmer.

This company's effective staging proves that you can connect with audiences with a scaled-down version of Oz -- you don't need grandiose effects to tell this classic tale. All you need is heart, a brain and courage.

The extension of "The Wiz" runs thru Sunday, July 28. All Thursday performances start at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturdays start at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. The Saturday matinees are July 20 and 27 at 2 p.m. Ticket prices range from $25 to $47 and special group rates are available. Call the box office at 314-534-3810, come by the new office location at 4709 Delmar Blvd. St. Louis, MO 63108, or visit metrotix.com to purchase tickets. Visit theblackrep.org for more information.

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