By Vinette K. Pryce
Forty years after winning seven Tony Awards —Broadway’ s highest theater honor – the first Black musical to claim the distinction eased into two New York City parks for three, free, nights of celebration to mark the 40th anniversary of its historic trailblazing achievements.
“The Wiz: A celebration in Dance and Music” delighted a new generation of music-loving, theater fans on Aug. 12 with a free presentation at Rumsey Playfield at Central Park Summerstage from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.
There, beneath the stars, amidst a slight breeze, a production starring Andre De Shields as the Wiz, Dee Dee Bridgewater, (Glinda) Inaya Day, Ebony Jo-Ann (Addaperle) and brief narrations from Phylicia Rashad, Broadway’s 1975 stunning attraction reprised the groundbreaking theatrical production in song and dance.
The outdoor performance arena seemed ideal for staging but much too small to accommodate guests intent on witnessing the return of the Black wizard inspired by Judy Garland’s classic film adaptation from a book about a little girl and her adventures along ‘the yellow brick road’ in search of the mysterious transformational individual.
The musical won a first for Charlie Smalls in the category of composer and lyricist emerging the most Tony Awards won by a Black musical.
Nominated eight times, the legendary production hauled seven wins and accolades 40 years ago for its direction by Trinidad & Tobago native Geoffrey Holder.
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It was so acclaimed for its retelling of the classic tale of “The Wizard of Oz” using an all-Black cast that he was lauded with a Tony win for his direction and the distinction of being the first of his race to claim the honor.
After four decades “The Wiz” maintains the distinction of remaining the only Black musical to claim such an honor.
In addition, Holder was doubly delighted winning another Tony in that same production and triply for being named the premiere recipient of theater’s high honor in the costume design category.
The six-foot-six champion died last Oct. 6 at age 84.
His trailblazing presentation starred a teen-aged Stephanie Mills who later emerged a rhythm and blues multi-Grammy winner.
The anniversary staging was directed and choreographed by George Faison who is acclaimed the winning choreographer of the Broadway showcase.
In this revival, the Harlem resident strutted the stages often to expand or amplify Rashad’s narration.
Still glowing from his pioneering role in executing a winning production, he included the Tony Award ceremony’s announcer who introduced his prize as an opener to the Parks production. The nostalgic reprise attracted an illustrious gathering of patrons to the parks.
Many who saw the original musical made it a family affair taking young children and seniors to the landmark showcase.
Some had to restrain themselves from blurting the lyrics to “Home,” “Ease On Down The Road” and “If You Believe.”
Although scaled down with limited props and sets, the parks’ musical justified a revival of the distinctive presentation which still maintains s its reputation of being the first and only Black musical to win a Tony for Best Musical.
Fans flocked to both parks – many were shut-out from the strict policy at Rumsey Playfield which prohibits overcrowding and security violations. Performances at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem were a bit more relaxed with determined patrons finding spots along the grassy outlying areas and others high above the seated areas in trees in order to see the musical which was made into a big-screen attraction that co-starred Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Nipsey Russell, Richard Pryor, Lena Horn, Theresa Merritt, Clarice Taylor, Hinton Battle, Mabel King and Tiger Haynes.
According to Wikipedia:“NBC is planning a live performance of the stage show, which is scheduled to air on Dec. 3. Stephanie Mills, who originated the role of Dorothy on Broadway, will be playing Aunt Em. An open casting call for the role of Dorothy took place on June 6. In July Queen Latifah was cast as the Wiz and Mary J. Blige was confirmed to play the role of Evillene. In addition, Beyonce was offered to play Glinda, but no deal was made. The following month, David Alan Grier was cast as the Cowardly Lion and newcomer Shanice Williams was chosen to play Dorothy. Uzo Aduba will be playing Glinda for the event and Amber Riley has been cast as Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North. Other principal cast-members will include Elijah Kelley as the Scarecrow, Ne-Yo as the Tin Man, and Common as the Bouncer, the gatekeeper of the entrance to Emerald City.”
This latest presentation co-produced by Faison , Tad Schnugg and Edmerald Gan featured: Darlesia Cearcy (Dorothy), Wallace Gary (scarecrow), John Manzari (Tin Man), Anitra McKinney, Elaine Nicole Phifer (Evilene), actors Elijah Avraham Jahmal, Chase Raymond Matsamura, Nahum McLean, Martell Ruffin, Nehemiah Spencer, Jerome Wells, Khalia Campbell, Priscilla Greco, Aqura Lacey, Krystal Mackie, Mahalia Mays, Briana Nuamah, Amber Pickens, Bria Williams, and pit singers Chenee Campbell, Kojo Littles, Matia Washington, Darrell Williams, keyboardists Edward Callahan, Jeremy Jordan, Gina Ellis, David Robertson the anniversary presentation featured Reji Woods as the Lion.