Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Blunting the Snark: The Wiz Live!

Shanice Williams (left) and Elijah Kelley in NBC's The Wiz Live! (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

Over the last few years, the response to NBC’s live broadcasts of crowd-pleasing musicals has reminded the network’s executives of the power of snark in our culture. The concept, which began with 2013’s The Sound of Music Live!, is certainly one that theatre fans like me welcome: the network has, for three years running, staged productions for the holiday season, and the first one proved to be a monster hit in terms of ratings. Given the time of year when these specials air, they’re also smart in terms of how producers Craig Zedan and Neil Meron are attempting to recapture nostalgia for the TV specials of the 1950s, which featured stars like Mary Martin in shows like Peter Pan. Having a captive audience for a live event has become crucial in a time of declining ratings and delayed viewing, so even though many viewers tuned in to laugh at as much as enjoy The Sound of Music Live!, it still proved a savvy business decision for the network.

Still, there seemed to be a widespread consensus that the production was only a success in commercial terms. The Sound of Music Live! was plagued by a number of issues, notably the quality of the sound – the show sometimes sounded like it was taking place in an airplane hangar. The most egregious problem, however, was the casting, which featured pop star Carrie Underwood as Maria. It wasn’t as if the producers were desecrating a great classic (I’m not especially fond of the saccharine The Sound of Music, for what that’s worth) with this stunt casting, but it was still painful to watch Underwood get acted and sung off the stage by Broadway veterans like Audra McDonald and Christian Borle, to say nothing of the fact that no actor playing Captain Von Trapp (certainly not True Blood’s Stephen Moyer) could make the decision to go with Underwood’s Maria over Laura Benanti’s Elsa Schraeder seem remotely believable.

NBC’s advance publicity for their next production, 2014’s Peter Pan Live!, made a notable effort to convince people to watch the show in order to sincerely enjoy it, not just to snipe at it. However, they made some of the same mistakes. Allison Williams was more capable as Peter than Underwood was as Maria, but she still wasn’t on the level of supporting actors like Kelli O’Hara, who was cast as Mrs. Darling, or Borle, who doubled as George Darling and Mr. Smee. That latter casting decision was especially strange, since the actor playing George is usually cast as Captain Hook, for obvious reasons. Instead, Hook was played by Christopher Walken, whose sleepwalking performance attracted the most negative comments. The casting issues, combined with some lingering technical problems and the presence of a bizarrely psychedelic crocodile, ensured that Peter Pan Live! didn’t manage to attract nearly as many viewers, let alone the critical and popular acclaim that The Sound of Music Live! lacked.

Zedan and Meron’s choice to produce The Wiz, the 1970s R&B reimagining of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as the third of NBC’s live shows seemed calculated to defuse some of the derision that had greeted their previous two efforts. Even if you’re not a fan of the show (I was only familiar with a few of the songs), it’s hard to be snarky about a musical featuring an African-American cast at a time when issues of race and representation have become so prominent in the entertainment industry. The producers didn’t entirely ditch their practice of stunt-casting celebrities, but this time they sensibly chose to do this for the supporting roles, opting for the unknown Shanice Williams as their Dorothy.

 Queen Latifah in NBC's The Wiz Live! (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

The end result, which aired this past Thursday, was a production that finally met its producers’ goals, delivering an entertaining – if not especially deep or ambitious – show for a prime-time audience. There were no glaring casting missteps this time around. Williams, David Alan Grier as the Lion, and Elijah Kelley as the Scarecrow all gave appealing performances, as did pop stars like Ne-Yo as the Tin Man and Mary J. Blige as the Wicked Witch of the West (dubbed Evillene in this version). Blige’s turn in “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” epitomized the production: she was campy but committed in her performance of an upbeat, crowd-pleasing number. Perhaps best of all was Queen Latifah, who brought nuance to her depiction of the Wizard in a show where subtlety is hardly a primary concern. Only the rapper Common as the gatekeeper of Emerald City felt completely off, as though he were just staring ahead and dutifully reading from the teleprompter.

As Phil Dyess-Nugent noted for this site in his review of the last attempt to adapt Baum’s source material, Pauline Kael praised the performers in the classic 1939 The Wizard of Oz for understanding their roles as vaudeville comedy routines and playing them accordingly, and while the material here isn’t nearly up to the level of that film, the cast seemed to know exactly what to do with it. It didn’t hurt that Zedan and Meron hired Kenny Leon and Fatima Robinson as the production’s director and choreographer, respectively. Both brought a dynamism to the staging that NBC’s last two live shows had sorely missed, and Robinson’s influence was particularly welcome. Numbers like “You Can’t Win,” which featured a chorus of menacing crows, and the upbeat “A Brand New Day” were impressive for the way they showcased the performers’ physical virtuosity, something which I also found evident in Kelley’s performance throughout the show.

The show’s been rewritten for both the 1978 movie and this live version, and I can’t speak to its merits in either its original or cinematic incarnations, but this iteration felt oddly misshapen and haphazardly paced. The songs run the gamut from infectiously catchy to instantly forgettable, and their placement within the show didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, with a couple of plodding numbers making the proceedings drag before they finally kicked into a higher gear. Some songs, while appealing, sit awkwardly within the narrative: the Tin Man gets a lengthy number, “What Would I Do If I Could Feel,” seemingly at random in the middle of the scene where the Wizard charges Dorothy’s crew with defeating Evillene, and the deservedly popular closer “Home” transitions into a jarringly abrupt end to the show.

NBC’s live musicals are always going to be limited in terms of their ambition – don’t hold your breath if you’re waiting for "The Light in the Piazza Live!" or "NBC Presents Pacific Overtures." However, if future productions are on the level of The Wiz Live!, they’ll at least offer well-produced entertainment, as well as a showcase for performers who audiences wouldn’t normally be able to see sing and dance outside of a Broadway theatre. The idea seems to be catching on, with Fox presenting Grease Live next month. I’m not exactly on the edge of my seat for that one, but it’s at least intriguing to see a resurgent interest in producing live musicals for a mass television audience.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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