The ultimate revival of Broadway musical theater is wasted

A flight of fantasy born in the 1970s, “The Wiz” can bear a lot of interpretations. Sidney Lumet's mystery film, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, puts a dark twist on the children's story of… Frank Baum's “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” takes place in a doomed and almost destroyed New York City. Certainly, high schools and community theaters have long been content with their prop vaults, as the musical by William F. Brown (book) and Charlie Smalls (music and lyrics) is an emotion-based vehicle for a familiar plot and guaranteed hits like “Home.” And “You can't win.”

But the Maximum revival that opens at Broadway's Marquis Theater tonight, after a 13-city national tour, diminishes some of the show's reliable fun with candy-colored sheer exuberance. This family-friendly approach—bright, spacious, and uniform—is in keeping with the music's heritage as a VHS favorite, but even kids can benefit from help knowing where to look. The stunning, over-the-top images often swallow both the actors and the storytelling in sensory overload.

The production, directed by Shelley Williams, begins promisingly with an intimate exchange between Dorothy (newcomer Nichelle Lewis) and Auntie Em (Melody A. Bates), comforting her niece from the town who is being bullied at her Kansas school. Rendered in grayscale as a homage to Judy Garland's film, this scene invites tender emotional engagement with the reluctant soon-to-be heroine.

But this opportunity for connection is quickly lost in the one-way tornado of Oz, as a wave of hyper-colored stimulation competes for the audience's attention. Excess is the hallmark of a fantasy world that lacks a unified look: storybook scenery (designed by “Black Panther” designer Hannah Beachler) contrasted with grotesque projections (designed by Daniel Brody) that resemble Roku’s Town crossed with Middle-earth; Sherine Davis's costumes are full of embellishments in yellow, orange, turquoise and pink. The already rambling plot feels even more disjointed when each scene seems to take place in a different CGI-enhanced world.

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Almost every seemingly tired surface presents not only an aesthetic obstacle, but also a dramatic one, as do Dorothy and the companions she gathers while on the road — a scarecrow (“The Voice” alum Avery Wilson), a Tinman (Philip Johnson Richardson) and a lion. (Kyle Ramar Freeman) – He backs off from being busy even when he's supposed to be banging.

Part of the problem may be technical; Smalls' words are often difficult to hear over the orchestra's wall of sound except when the actors belt out above them. This includes Deborah Cox, who is unmistakable on her instrument but overpowered in her debut as Glinda. Lewis, who has a soft, engaging voice and an unassuming presence, feels like a background player in her own adventure (removing Toto from the script probably doesn't help). Among the principals, Richardson stands out with his smooth, direct take on “What I Would Do If I Could Feel” and the twirling combined with Jaquel Knight's refreshing choreography.

The hip-hop moves provide the production's most exciting moments, particularly in the “The Emerald City” sequence, which also includes soulful footsteps in the spirit of the '70s source material. As the title character, shown here as a gentle wizard, Wayne Brady also displays impressive versatility.

Reviews of the book, written by comedian Amber Ruffin, explain the backstories of Dorothy's friends, although trying to understand the surprising plot is probably futile. Constant attempts to update the humor succeed intermittently. They demand a degree of erudition from a production that is both unflinchingly serious and cheerful. Even the arrival of the poppy, an obvious metaphor for vice, is bizarrely displayed on a set of crowded shelves that appear lifted from the school classroom.

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Without the dark and menacing corners, this Oz feels more like a playground than a coming-of-age purgatory (the last Wicked Witch standing, Evelyn Bates, registers as mildly menacing and is defeated with a small spray). Why does Dorothy want to go home and what has she learned? If she was looking for a place to belong, it looks like she found the right place. But maybe her senses need a break.

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