Arts & Events

EYE FROM THE AISLE: Berkeley Playhouse “The Wiz” dazzles with singing, dancing

By John A. McMullen II
Thursday August 15, 2013 - 03:11:00 PM
Lion (Benjamin Pither), Scarecrow (Aejay Mitchell), Dorothy (Taylor Jones), and Tin Man (Reggie D. White)
Ken Levin
Lion (Benjamin Pither), Scarecrow (Aejay Mitchell), Dorothy (Taylor Jones), and Tin Man (Reggie D. White)

If you are looking for something to do this weekend or next, go see “The Wiz” at Berkeley Playhouse at the Julia Morgan Theatre on College Avenue. It closes Sunday August 25, and you don’t want to miss this extraordinary array of talent. 

I really don’t much care for the songs of Smalls and Brown who wrote it. Except for “Ease on Down the Road,” I can’t remember one. But in the singing, dancing and acting, the cast is superb and professional. 

Dorothy (Taylor Jones), Scarecrow (Aejay Mitchell), Cowardly Lion (Benjamin Pither), Tin Man (Reggie D. White), The Wizard (Vernon Bush) and Auntie Em/Glinda (Nicole Julien) are Broadway quality in dancing and singing.  

The choreography by director Kimberly Dooley is complicated, brilliant, and a vast improvement over previous musicals I’ve seen from this company. The tornado dance was very creative and solved that problem through imagination rather than special effects which I find preferable in live theatre. 

My only complaint on with the choreography is the Scarecrow’s lack of “collapsing”—he’s made of straw—and that step was made memorable by Ray Bolger in the 1939 film. Aejay Mitchell was very limber, gymnastic, and talented so it did not seem to be a lack of ability that constrained that famous move.  

The musical direction by Tal Ariel—who won the Critics Circle award for “Seussical” at the Playhouse the year before last—was an instrumental part of the success of this production. Everything jelled. Ariel uses off-stage backup singers to enhance the music, and there was never a musical misstep. He jazzes up the music even more than it already is and makes for a rocking good time. 

My quibble with the musical is that it removes the introduction of the Oz characters of the mean bicycling Miss Gulch, and the triad of farm hands who later become the Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man. 

This omission removes the rationale for her “dream” (colorized in the film) featuring characters from her life, which adds immeasurably to the story and one’s suspension of disbelief. It’s hard to imagine the audience not being familiar with the film, but I guess it’s possible.  

Director Kimberly Dooley is a master caster and has gathered together a great group together. She uses the young people and children’s ensemble to great advantage; among them is a standout, dancer Tierra Allen. 

Young or old, you’ll appreciate the talent, and it’s something you can do with the kids before school starts. But hurry, because it closes on Sunday, August 25.