The Wiz isn’t exactly “We’re off to see the Wizard.” Both follow the Yellow Brick Road with high spirits, but The Wiz proceeds to a different, syncopated beat. Both eventually get to the same place: back (or down) home, where it all began.
Maybe what they have most in common is Harold Arlen. The Wiz brings to the fore, using the storyline of Arlen’s best-known work (if none of his tunes! Charlie Smalls’, instead), what he was encouraging behind the scenes at the Cotton Club and on musicals like House of Flowers and Jamaica: new vehicles and recognition for African-American performers.
Belasco Theatre Co. opened their production of The Wiz last weekend at Malonga Casquelourd Arts Center Theatre (formerly Alice Arts) in Oakland, running through Aug. 21, featuring many of the young local performers who appeared in the 2000 production. Founder Edward Belasco came out of retirement for this one—and hopes to direct more.
This is community theater in the deepest sense. Since 1981, Belasco has been training young people to perform at higher levels, and the results are apparent in the lively display of talent on stage, and its impact on the audience, which visibly feeds the performers’ zeal.
Their stories tell it, too. The show’s stars mostly grew up here; some of them are now cultivating careers, locally and internationally. Kamaria Ousley, who plays Dorothy (she was 15 in the 2000 show), was born in Oakland, went to Skyline and graduated from Berklee School of Music, and just performed at Jazzaar in Switzerland. Jonathan Smothers, The Cowardly Lion, also a Skyline grad, teaches voice in Oakland. Dave Abrams, The Scarecrow, has been with Belasco since age seven; his wild flair for acrobatic dancing shows his sports background. He’s just been accepted to UC Berkeley as a performing arts student. “Tinman” Phillip Harris is a Saint Mary’s High and an alumnus of the Young Musicians’ Program at UC Berkeley who toured in China this year and sang Threepenny Opera with UCLA Opera. Many others in the cast of 16 are students or grads of Skyline, Oakland School for the Arts, Berkeley High, or YMP—and more than a few have been with Belasco for years.
The nine-member team of chorus and dancers sets up and plays off the leads, rocking especially, in a combination of show and street, to the big numbers, the show-stoppers. There’s “Ease On Down the Road,” The Tinman’s “Slide Some Oil to Me,” “Brand New Day” ... it seems like a song with a production number comes along every other minute in this part quick scan, part vaudeville, of the Oz story.
Dr. Samuel Lewis (another Berkeley High grad), whose son once performed with Belasco, also came back to produce The Wiz, putting together funding from over 85 donors, corporate and individual. “An acronym in medicine, TNTC, means ‘too numerous to count,’” Dr. Lewis said when thanking the community for its backing. “Pediatrician by day, producer by night,” he’s also the liveliest spectator, with a stream of informative asides. When a little kid cried, frightened by a blackout between scenes, Dr. Lewis quipped, “I’m a pediatrician; they always know where to find me!”
It’s a gutsy, fun, gratifying show—sensations clearly shared by audience, cast and production staff alike.
Presented by Belasco Theatre Company at the Malonga Arts Cener, 1428 Alice St., Oakland. $15-$20. (925) 284-9544. www.belasco.org.