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For 'The Wiz Live!' director Kenny Leon, there's no place like home in St. Petersburg

Kenny Leon's path to The Wiz Live! wasn't entirely paved with yellow bricks.

His journey began on Miccosukee Road in Jim Crow's Tallahassee, winding through boyhood on 18th Street S in a desegregating St. Petersburg.

Leon, 59, eases on today as a Tony award-winning director, now entrusted with NBC's live telecast Thursday of a Broadway classic.

Months of rehearsals with stars Queen Latifah, Ne-Yo, Mary J. Blige and Leon's 19-year-old discovery, Shanice Williams, come down to one performance, one night. If it clicks, perhaps a Broadway revival could be next.

And there's still no place like home, Tampa Bay, where his mother, stepfather and siblings still reside.

"To me, I'm sort of like Dorothy in The Wiz," Leon said by telephone from New York. "It kind of parallels my life.

"It's a story that reminds me . . . that home is where the love is. So if I go to Tampa or St. Pete and I feel the love there, that's my home. That's where the love is."

Leon needn't click his heels to go back. Memory takes him faster.

• • •

Northeast High School, class of '74. Leon was among the first African-Americans diverted there from then-traditionally black Gibbs High School, and he was elected student council president in an uneasy era of integration.

"During that time, (in) the theater program at Northeast, there wasn't a lot of vision in terms of integrating plays that would involve black writers or black stories," Leon said.

"I remember trying to raise a fuss about it but . . . it wasn't politically correct yet. There were still growing pains . . . a lot of race riots. I was trying to bring us together."

Around the same time, The Wiz shook Broadway, changing its look and sound as one of the first productions featuring an entirely African-American cast. This Motown-flavored twist on The Wizard of Oz won seven Tony awards including best musical. A movie version in 1978 starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson certified its revisionist vibe and crossover appeal.

Leon found an outlet for his artistic instincts through Upward Bound, a federally funded academic and cultural enrichment program. One of his fellow theater students was future Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett, a Boca Ciega High School graduate and "great friend to this day."

"After spending that time at Northeast, getting familiar with a different culture, I needed to go to an extraordinary black college," Leon said.

He chose Clark College at the Atlanta University Center, a consortium whose alumni include Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson. Law school intentions shifted to acting, his good looks landing commercials and TV roles.

Leon remembers being "killed" three times on In the Heat of the Night. When his mother "found out how much money could be made. That's when she gave her blessing," he said, laughing.

• • •

Directing was a natural next step.

"That turned my world around," Leon said. "When I'm acting, I'm just worried about that piece of the pie, contributing to the whole. But when you're directing, you . . . get the vision out of your head and on the stage. I never looked back."

In 2004, Leon made his Broadway debut directing a revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun starring Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, and later the TV version. A second revival in 2014 starring Denzel Washington earned Leon a Tony award for Best Direction of a Play.

All of Leon's directing on stage and screen, live and recorded, led to the The Wiz Live!

"I think I was the uniquely qualified one to do this show," he said.

"I've done five movies of the week, I've done episodic television, opera, musicals. . . . I'm taking a little bit of everything I learned to coordinate this particular event." (Camera directions during the telecast are in the hands of Matthew Diamond.)

The pressure is high. NBC's previous two live musicals, The Sound of Music Live! with Carrie Underwood and Peter Pan Live! with Allison Williams, were met with mixed reviews and real-time scrutiny from the Twittersphere. Ratings, though, were high for both.

Leon is confident that The Wiz is something different.

"This is not television, it's not theater, not a musical, not a drama but it's all of that," Leon said. "I don't think The Sound of Music or Peter Pan was like this, although I learned from what they did on those two productions."

Everything about The Wiz Live! has been strategized and rehearsed from fade-in to fade-out. I asked Leon what he'll do after Thursday's pressurized live telecast ends.

"I'll probably drop on my knees and say thank you," he said. "Go have a nice glass of Woodland Reserve, a nice bourbon, and just go relax in Hawaii for about 10 days. Then I'll come to Tampa and visit my mom."

No place else like that.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

The Wiz Live!

Watch it at 8 p.m. Thursday on NBC.

For 'The Wiz Live!' director Kenny Leon, there's no place like home in St. Petersburg 12/01/15 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 1, 2015 10:15pm]
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