Through Oct. 3 at Theatre Downtown
2113 N. Orange Ave.
The Wiz, an African-American musical adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was a long-running Broadway hit that opened in 1975 and ran for four years and 1,672 performances. It was a groundbreaking production in its day and the first large-scale, big-budget musical that featured an all-black cast. Yet it can be argued that it owed its longevity, as well as its cache of awards, more to its political context than to its artistic merit.
Yet, in a departure from its usual fare, Theatre Downtown has decided to restage The Wiz, in a production directed by Steve MacKinnon with choreography by Jonathan Guise. Decades later, while the sight of a racially mixed cast is mostly commonplace, the flaws are just as painfully evident. The story is still a mess, the music is even more dated, and the script's resemblance to the original tale is almost nonexistent. And yet none of that matters one tiny bit.
For within the tight confines of Theatre Downtown's intimate space, MacKinnon and Guise have mounted a totally captivating and spirited production. The young and talented cast brims with more explosive energy and unrestrained joy than I have seen onstage in a long time. Each performer, from the tiniest cute Munchkin (the youngest cast member is 7 years old!) to the oldest and ugliest witch, sings and dances with strong and unwavering commitment, giving the audience moment after moment of imaginative comedy and fervent musicality.
The show's book by William F. Brown, with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls, attempts to juxtapose the African-American urban experience with Baum's fantasy of a Kansas farm girl's yearning for home but never quite connects. Subsequent productions, including a 1984 Broadway revival that ran for only two weeks, proved that the show itself was never really as good as its legions of fans imagined.
Still, there's a bittersweet nostalgia for the otherwise dismal 1978 Motown film version, which starred Diana Ross as Dorothy, as well as the late Richard Pryor as the Wiz and the late Michael Jackson as the scarecrow.
The Wiz may be an untidy muddle of a show, but in this summer of discontent, I heartily recommend that you "Ease on Down the Road" to Theatre Downtown and step inside the ever-wonderful world of Oz — it just might be the happiest place in town.
— Al Krulick
Suspensions of time and travel
Through Sept. 30 at UCF Center for Emerging Media
500 W. Livingston St.
Curated by Chan Chao and originally displayed at Washington, D.C's Flashpoint Gallery, the color photos in Shift, by E. Brady Robinson, focus on the visual sensations and psychological disorientation of travel and movement. Robinson is a UCF assistant professor and coordinator of the master's program "Studio Art and the Computer," and she has the distinction of opening the season at the gallery space in UCF's downtown Center for Emerging Media.
Whereas a tourist might snap pristine images of classic points of interest on vacation, Robinson homes in on the moments between. She captures the images in the distorted language of her camera, and what we see ranges from blurred, jarring forms to fields of color.
Viewers can relate to Robinson's photographs because many of us have been there at some point — sitting in planes gazing out on the tarmac, sitting in unfamiliar subway cars, sitting in trains watching landscapes dissolve into fleeting and elusive impressions. The results evoke an uneasy feeling of stillness, and perhaps even alienation, amidst the expected excitement and adventure of travel.
In one photograph, Robinson's lens captures a picturesque Italian canal scene barely visible through a window framed by gray curtains. Close by, another photo portrays a nighttime café scene as seen from above. Both pictures appear to place the photographer and audience apart from the action, as if we are holding back any engagement with the surroundings and recognizing the heightened self-consciousness of our times.
Robinson also touches on travel as a consumer activity, aiming her lens at repetitive rows of sneakers and, in St. Sulpice, France, at a wall-length metro-station advertisement for PromoVacances.com, which reimagines classical columns as a bar code. Directly above the train tracks lies a warning sticker: "Ne pas descendre sur la voie. Danger de mort." Whether or not Robinson intended to direct viewers to the warning — to say, "Don't step down from your safe vantage point. It may be dangerous" — it ties in nicely with her constant positioning as an almost passive participant in these vaguely portrayed world travels.
Frequently the action in Robinson's photos lies at the horizon, creating a sense of merging together. She situates herself and her audience in windows between one setting and another. She constructs a borderland for considerate introspection. "We are on the move," the photos seem to say. "We are changing."
Shift is successful because its thematic impact is neither obvious and heavy-handed nor frustratingly obtuse. Presented with no titles or curatorial commentary, the exhibition as a whole evokes wonder and a sense of displacement upon moving through the world, in whatever capacity.
— Megan Peckarts@orlandoweekly.com
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