December 4, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Review: “The Wiz Live”


THE WIZ LIVE was the smoothest, best-cast and best-sung yet of NBC’s annual Broadway musical pageants, although it had its own issues.  The network, and producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, made a demographic choice in picking The Wiz as their latest production.  Although a Broadway hit, The Wiz isn’t generally considered part of the canon of musical classics, with an uneven score by Charlie Smalls (whose credit on the TV show was rather embarrassingly shoved to the end credits) and a book that had to be largely replaced for air by a choppy new one by Harvey Fierstein.  It’s tarnished a bit by the famously starry (Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor) but financially disastrous Sidney Lumet movie, and overshadowed by the two other and better musicals inspired by L. Frank Baum’s writing.  However, it’s of much newer vintage than The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, with a set of R&B-influenced songs that can easily accommodate pop performers.  It also certainly didn’t pass anyone’s notice after Peter Pan underperformed last season that Empire is the biggest show on network television these days, and that a loyal African-American audience has also helped to make hits of series like Love & Hip-Hop, Power and Black-ish.

The production itself also differed this time from those for Music and Pan.  Instead of being performed on an enormous series of soundstages, with a variety of elaborate sets, Wiz was staged in a single huge space, with structures that slid in and out and an enormous LED back wall of digital projections.  The decision may have saved money, and it wasn’t unpleasing to look at, but it made the action feel stagy and even claustrophobic; at their worst, the dance numbers sometimes looked like sequences from a 1970s-era TV variety show.  The moments of comedy–which weren’t exactly inspired to begin with–were pitched too broadly, as though they were playing to a studio audience that wasn’t there.

For all that, though, this Wiz flowed as the other NBC musicals haven’t, and that was largely due to the performers.  The decision to cast an unknown as Dorothy and surround her with veterans paid off with the discovery of Shanice Williams, who has a big voice, abundant charm, and the ability to hold the camera even when sharing a scene with powerhouse co-stars.  They included, in the most important supporting roles, Elijah Kelley (Scarecrow), Ne-Yo (Tin Man) and David Allen Grier (Cowardly Lion), all of whom did their characters and songs proud, with Kelley particularly impressive on the singing side and Grier on the comedy.  Kelley and Ne-Yo also collaborated with Harvey Mason, Jr and Stephen Oremus on the score’s single new song “We Got It,” a rousing anthem for the team to sing before going on their mission to end the Wicked Witch.

That Witch was Mary J. Blige, who nearly walked off with the show with a killer “No Bad News” and some real commitment to the comedy.  Uzo Aduba obliterated any thought of her Orange Is The New Black persona with her turn as Glinda the Good Witch and belting rendition of “If You Believe,” and Amber Riley brought her Glee pipes to the other Good Witch.  It was a particularly nice touch to have Stephanie Mills, who began her career easing on down that road, as Aunt Em.  Queen Latifah had the most problematic part as a gender-switching Wizard (the script had to stop dead at one point so Dorothy could emphasize that no one should care that the Wizard was really a woman), but brought plenty of presence to the role, while Common must just have wanted to participate, as he didn’t have much to do in his two brief (non-singing) scenes as the Guard of the Emerald City gate.

For all the publicity about the participation of Cirque de Soleil, they were sparingly used.  Much more prominent were the bright costumes by Paul Tazewell, and the exceptional prosthetic make-up.  The complicated production, directed by Kenny Leon, seemed to go just about flawlessly despite the pressure of airing live, and also did a fine job of keeping up its energy even when lengthy commercial breaks seemed to interrupt the action whenever it was establishing some momentum.  It was also a wise last-minute decision to let the show end 15 minutes earlier than scheduled, allowing for a faster pace.

The Wiz Live didn’t succeed in turning a moderately entertaining musical into a classic, and there are still kinks to be worked out in the formula of translating a stage musical to a TV presentation.  This year’s effort, though, took several dancing steps in the right direction.  Our next TV musical will let us see how a different creative team handles the challenge:  in January, FOX gets into the action with a live Grease.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."