The bad news for slowpokes: Hattlioo's production of The Wiz sold out most of its shows before opening night, and tickets are hard to come by.
The good news for slowpokes: Don't sweat it, you're not missing much. And if you really need a fix, the good parts are all on YouTube anyway.
Also, thank goodness for advance sales, right? Because I really don't think this was the flashy season finale Hattiloo had in mind, and it's doubtful a flat, sung-to-tracks iteration of the Oz story would capture as many imaginations on the merits. There's too much talent on stage to dismiss this Wiz outright, but there's no compelling vision either. Design is uninspired at the edge of being downright counterproductive, and the whole thing smacks of something one might observe in a small town middle school cafetorium.
Even Emma Crystal's typically inspired choreography is only intermittently inspiring.
The Wiz follows the original Wizard's blueprint pretty faithfully. There are Munchkins, and witches, flying monkeys, weird men behind curtains and, "I'm melting, I'm melting," and like that. With its gritty vintage tone and broad emotional spectrum, it can be a moving musical event, and funky good fun for all the senses. But the Hattiloo's music is all canned and thin-sounding, especially when contrasted with live human voices, and good ones at that. It's got no bottom to speak of, and instead of feeling the music in your body as one might in a club — or a good night at the theater — the experience is more like watching karaoke on cable access.
And let's be honest, nobody goes to see The Wiz because they just love the underdeveloped book. Music is the #1 priority, and here it feels like an afterthought.
Pro tip: Sight lines are especially bad for those unfortunate enough to be seated all the way up right and left. Arrive early, sit anywhere else.
I've seen great proscenium-style theater in black box theaters, but that's never the most interesting or effective way to use this kind of space. That said, the creative team could stand to take a cue from the folks doing Peter & the Starcatcher on the proscenium stage next door at Circuit Playhouse and learn how less can be so much more. Actors and storytellers are more important than representational scenery. But I think I miss dynamics most of all, Scarecrow.
This show could have been so much better in the round with a smaller cast, a hot little combo, and a whole lot of creative problem solving.
While the general tone may be flatter than Kansas, there are some real bright spots in the cast. Kortland Whalum has so much presence as the Tin Man it starts feeling like his show every time he sings. Charlton L. Johnson throws himself into the part of the cowardly lion with reckless and refreshing abandon. Mary Pruitt's similarly satisfying as the Lord High Underling, and there are others.
India Ratliff is fine as Dorothy, but for someone in almost every scene, she's never given very much to do. Which is really what's wrong with the whole production. The actors walk around, say their lines and dance with a modicum of conviction. But what should be high adventure through the urban funhouse lookinglass just kind of eases on through the most basic motions.
There've been times when I could easily describe The Hattiloo as being one of Memphis' most consistently creative and resourceful theaters. Fingers crossed the unevenness of recent productions can be chalked up to growing pains. Only a year into the new building, and already this ambitious company is physically expanding to accommodate rehearsals, programs, and events. In the meantime, artistry suffers consistently and considerably.
Nowhere is that more evident than in The Wiz.
“If you listen to the beat, and hear what’s in your soul, you’ll never let anyone steal your rock-and-roll!”That’s the last line of Memphis’ artificially uplifting closer, sung with Bic-waving conviction, as the musical concludes on a note more wishful than happy. But every time I see it (and the times are adding up), I find myself asking the same two questions: “Who stole what, now? And who’d they steal it from?”
When his publisher asked if he’d ever thought about writing musicals, the rocker — and former Juilliard student — answered with a sarcastic, “What are they?” The publisher’s answer cut straight to the heart of the matter: “Musicals mean 23 of your songs are performed eight times a week.” Bryan’s instant, unflinching reply: “I’m interested.”
“Oob!” may be Shkspr's funniest line, but that’s all I’m saying about that.
Go to The Other Place. It’s not an uplifting play, this story of Dr. Juliana Smithton, a biophysicist developing drugs to treat dementia, while losing her grip on reality. She has brain cancer. Or maybe she doesn’t. Her husband is screwing around and filing for divorce. Or maybe he's not. Her daughter’s dead in a ditch somewhere, or maybe she's at the bottom a the river sleeping with the fishes, or maybe — just maybe — she’s dropping by the family’s second home and bringing the twins to visit grandmother.
Sharr White's critically acclaimed play The Other Place is not an uplifting experience but, with its unique structure and big heart, it's an experience audiences are unlikely to forget any time soon. For fans of good acting and unconventional mysteries, its arrival at Circuit Playhouse is fantastic news. This is the rare piece of theater where everything you think you know one minute is wiped clean in the next, stringing viewers along until the hopeful, but not very happy end.
Go to The Other Place. You’ll see Kim Sanders play an unsuspecting woman with problems of her own who’s come home to drown her sorrows in wine and Chinese takeout only to find a stranger in the kitchen who wants to hug it out. This scene between Sanders and an astonishingly good Kim Justis is funny, tense, hard to watch, impossible not to watch, and as fine a thing as anyone is likely to watch on any stage probably ever. Unless something extraordinary occurs between now and August — and it certainly could — this is the scene that will very likely earn both performers an Ostrander award.
Go to The Other Place, where Michael Gravois vividly falls apart and pulls himself together after taking more than anybody could ever be expected to bear and where Kinon Keplinger shows, once again, that he’s among the most versatile character actors in town. These are two of Memphis's most reliable actors at the top of their game. Gravois is uncommonly vulnerable here, and a magnificent ensemble player. His most heart crunching sounds happen off stage, framing and lifting some of Justis' best work to date. Keplinger has taken on more showy roles in the past but he's never been better.
Go to The Other Place. Director Dave Landis and his first-rate cast and crew have served up 90 minutes of bracing uncertainty. It's a tight, concise script with zero padding, and beautifully acted. It's not the best thing I've seen, but it's the best I've seen in Memphis in ages. Just go.