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Review: American Stage's 'The Wiz' finds a groove in the park

Darryl Reuben Hall as The Wiz with Whitney Drake’s Dorothy.
Published Apr. 15, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — It's fitting that this year's play in the park kicks off with a big tornado. American Stage's outdoor performance always has a certain rough-hewn charm, with actors and techs braving the elements in an unpredictable setting.

The cast of The Wiz powered through it on opening night Friday. It rained briefly, the Tampa Bay Blues Festival was blaring down the street, and the audio quality was spotty at the start.

But what can you do except, forgive me, ease on down the road? The Wiz, the Wizard of Oz told through an African-American lens, was entertaining, fast-moving and fun. American Stage's 29th annual spring show hit most of the right notes theater-lovers look forward to at Demens Landing Park.

Director Karla Hartley found her Dorothy, Whitney Drake, singing on board a Caribbean cruise liner. Dorothy is Drake's first starring role, and she handles it capably. Her voice is rich and had a slight husky flavor. She doesn't lack for confidence, not breaking character when her silver slipper came unbuckled early in one long, dancey scene Friday.

On her journey, she picks up familiar friends. There's Scarecrow (Torrey Thomas), who channels a dash of Michael Jackson's innocence from the 1978 film version. There's Tin Man (Chris Walker), who has some serious dance skills lurking beneath that silver suit. Resisting a body roll is futile while he sings Slide Some Oil to Me.

And finally, there's Lion, gender-bent here by the lovable Sara DelBeato. Making Lion a woman lends a fresh, sisterly glow to the whole thing. On the duet Be A Lion, Drake and DelBeato send a stunning harmony into the night sky.

Sharon Scott, a veteran performer with a mammoth voice, plays three roles. When she opens the second act as wicked witch Evillene, the energy really starts to pop. Scott is hilarious, making her minions kiss her boots, employing an Ursula the Sea Witch arrogance about her beauty.

Across the board, the acting in The Wiz feels a bit one-note, a bit Pollyanna-ish. Then again, this isn't Hamlet. Halftime brings some silly slow motion gags and Chariots of Fire music for the wine-swigging crowd firmly in the mood to clap along.

The Wiz's small, hard-working ensemble sounds much bigger, flipping between a litany of roles and ad-libbing some pretty funny quips. My eye kept going to Scott Daniel, who has sass to spare.

And let us not forget the all-powerful Wiz (Darryl Reuben Hall). He is outfitted like a Party City pimp at Halloween, but brings some much-needed emotional range and punch to the stage. When we meet the Wiz, the set by Scott Cooper really starts to come to delicious life.

Bonus tasks for your eagle eyes:

1. Toto is played by a local wire fox terrier named Daisy, on stage for all of 10 seconds at the beginning. She was pretty darn cute, and I hoped she'd make a cute bow at the end, because, cute. Alas, maybe she had to get home for kibbles.

2. Glance at the musicians on stage, who get downright dirty with The Wiz's bass grooves and jazzy riffs. Keyboardist Michael Raabe has a whole stank-face shoulder roll going on, proving even the band is having a funky good time.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

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