The Wiz Live! Review: A Hot Mess Saved By Brains, Heart, and Courage

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Our favorite serial killing shoe burglar eased on down the road with her brainless, heartless, cowardly friends in an uneven production that was still the best NBC has put on yet.

In other words, the prove was a hot mess that not even Queen Latifah could save. But there was something current, fun, and comparatively spectacular in its nonsense .

Well, Toto was good…

The Wiz Live ! was the third consecutive event musical staged live by NBC in what is now an annual vacation tradition. And as they say, theres no place like sitting on a couch hate-watching a huge star-studded production of a beloved Broadway musical. Feels like home.Though, like any three-hour production that slogs through an already too-busy holiday season, there were hours that we wished we could click our heel three times and stimulate the whole thing end, theres no denying The Wiz was NBCs best live musical yet.

The competition wasnt precisely fierce, of course.

Barring the camp hilarity of Christopher Walken doing the tarantella in chola eyebrows , no quantity of clapping couldve saved last years production of Peter Pan Live !, a catnap so laborious it had accumulated a layer of fairy dust by the time it had ended.

And though the previous years Sound of Music Live! boasted an Audra MacDonald performance of Climb Evry Mountain that brought us to tears, the rest of the production left us as nauseous as Carrie Underwood after spinning maniacally on a soundstage hilltop.

This isnt to say that The Wiz Live ! was perfect. Genuinely, theres just no bracing for the cheesiness of a musical theater set on your HD screen, or the flat energy that comes from a live performance of a musical number that doesnt get the glory of applause when staged for TVall foreplay with no satisfaction of completion.

The biggest flaw of Peter Pan and Sound of Music were how woefully dated the productions seemed, almost as masturbatory nostalgia acts playing for a captive audiencea viewership thats been hypnotized to view the annual musical as a rare mandated live family event each year.And while this heartwarming narrative of the serial killing shoe thief and her neurotic accomplice may always be as absurd as a choreographed tornado, there is as much resonance and urgency to The Wiz now as there was when the groundbreaking original production hit Broadway four decades ago.

Its more than because of some cutesy updates to the script and score, too: trap beats soundtracking the flying monkeys, choreography that has Dorothy doing the nae nae, and dialogue beginning with the folksy, What had happened was

At a day when visibility, diversity, and normalizing is the hot-button issue in amusement, theres no denying the power of an all-black casting of Hollywoods most gifted performersQueen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Uzo Aduba, and original Wiz superstar Stephanie Mills among themtaking over NBC for 3 hour of primetime.

( A selection of spectators are reportedly unaware that The Wiz, a work always tied inextricably to the politics and climate of the day, is crafted specifically for an all-black cast, and took to Twitter to voice their outrage over the overly PC casting of this production of The Wizard of Oz . Talk about requiring some brains, amiright ?)

Could newcomer Shanice Williams hold a candle to the transcendent performance of Mills all those years ago? No one could, which is why casting Mills as Dorothys Aunt Em in this production was such a classy touch.

But whereas most ingnues thrust in this situation might tip-toe down the road with precarious cautionlike a party girl unsure if those stilettos are going to be able to navigate those Meatpacking District cobblestonesWilliams, though still in need of some practice and polish, bounded down those yellow bricks with a brightnes that befits a teen daughter in a pair of fierce bedazzled silver pumps dancing her style toward Queen Latifah.

Polished to a blind glisten was the musicals talented ensemble, who brought ceaseless and only occasionally grating exuberance to a marathon of big production numbers, playing at various points dirty laundry swirl in a tornado, cranky crows, citizens of Emerald City, and sexy poppies. Oh, yes, did you assure those poppies? Werk, sexy poppies, werk.

We were long promised Cirque du Soleil acrobatics to accompany the modernized hip-hop choreography, but contortionists inhaling flame while dangling from their pinky toe on ribbons suspended high in the air were too few and far between to merit the pomp and situation before Thursdays telecast. Its for the best, too, as every instance of a cast member flying through the sky with clearly visible wires triggered harrowing PTSD flashbacks of last years Peter Pan escapades

That aside, it was a shrewd move by NBC to select The Wiz as its third foray into Broadway-meets-TV.

Sure, maybe there were those who longed for some of the excessive, arguably egregious autonomies Sidney Lumet took with the 1975 rialto tuner where reference is adapted it for the big screen.

Perhaps theres a handful of you out there who missed the social commentary on the nation of late 70 s urban New York along with your toe-tapping prove tunes, or were wistful for a breathless Diana Ross shrieking the final notes of Home. Me? I favor my Dorothy a strong-willed teen full of gumption and defiance , not a whiny middle-aged dog lady.

This production of The Wiz was messy and a bore at timesthe energy squashed along with the Wicked Witch of the East and only came alive again when characters erupted in songbut theres no arguing its abundant brains( smart casting and intelligent updating ), heart( the performances brimmed with them ), and gallantry( did you read those reviews last year ?).

It was super gay, too, which was a hoot and a half. Its about period someone realized the real audience for a three-hour musical in which everyone is obsessed with shoes.

Gay Twitter was winking innuendo as Ne-Yo, sporting a slick aluminum jean jacket, popped, locked, and crooned his style through the homoerotic subtext of Slide Some Oil to Me.

Unrelated: This is the most entertaining R& B superstar Ne-Yo has ever been, showing off astonishingly smooth song-and-dance skills as a character is expected to be rusted and rigid, and also the most acting scope of any of the shows big-ticket cast members. Im groaning as I even type it, but his Tin-Man was responsible for devoting the production most of its heart.

As always, Dorothy, Tin-Man, and Scarecrow, played by the woefully underused Elijah Kelly( previously the standout scene-stealer in the Hairspray musical cinema) doing his darnedest to live up to the loosey-goosey hay fever charm of Michael Jackson in the Wiz movie, ease on down the road and picked up a perfectly cast David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion.

And what do the four of them stumble upon? Why, they’re having a kiki in Emerald City! Yaaas, homosexuals, watch them vogue and werk in the productions drag ball gratifies the Hunger Games Capitol version of Emerald City, defining the scene for an introduction of Queen Latifah in her sparkly green lesbian power suit as the female Wiz. Eat your heart out, Suze Orman.

Latifah and Mary J. Blige were the biggest celebrity depict of the night, a pressure they shouldered with varying degrees of success. Latifah stalked and mugged with proper bombast when she donned drag for her leprechaun Cruella De Vil wig, and was warm and soulful when The Wiz comes clean with her ruse. She was excellent, duh. Hail the Queen.

Blige, as wicked witch Evilene, got the best number in the prove, the gospel barnburner No Bad News.

But apparently someone can only bring the house down once in a production of The Wiz , and Dorothy took care of that already in Act One. Blige tried her damnedest, hollering and screaming like a deranged Marie Antoinette, but her nerves never quite arrived at the camp level are required to pull it off. But candidly? Whatever. Mary J. Blige sang No Bad News on national Tv. Merry Christmas, us.

Elsewhere in Oz, Glee s Amber Riley was an early highlighting with an on-your-feet, rousing rendition of Hes the Wiz, and Orange Is the New Black fan favorite Uzo Aduba glittered her style down for a final act appearance as Glinda. Despite glaringly missing a big note in her ballad, Aduba was startlingly stirring in her brief appearance. She is the NBC live musical version of a hug. More Uzo, please.

It all ends with one last appearance by Toto, and Williams doing her best to belt out Home, The Wiz s big number. She was fine. Really, The Wiz Live ! was fine. We all tuned in ready to hate-watch the thing, having been accustomed to psychedelic crocodiles and Carrie Underwood in a ratchet wig, but this one was harder to snark through. Part of that was mitigated by the hiring of an adorable unknown in the lead, as opposed to a name like Underwood or Allison Williams, who the hell is far easier to hurl 140 -character tomatoes at. And part of it is because were really grading on a curve here. The Wiz Live! was certainly not transcendent, or even anything that Id ever want to watch again. But it was Citizen Kane compared to the twin rancid garbage piling that were Sound of Music and Peter Pan .

Dare we say were even excited for next year? Can you feel a brand new day, indeed.

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