"The Wiz" is back in town, opening last night at the Lunt Fontanne, too late to win another Tony, but in time to give the tag end of a generally lackluster Broadway musical season a bit of a lift, even though it looks a bit road weary.
The Dorothy, Stephanie Mills, is back, too, nine years older than when she created the role at 16 in this jive-happy version of the L. Frank Baum classic, but not an inch taller or wider, as luck would have it. Returning, also, are a few members of the earlier company, though not, regrettably, the distinctive portrayers of the Lion, Scarecrow and Tinman. But Carl Hall, who took over the title part while the 1975 production was still on Broadway, is truly "a whiz of a Wiz if ever a whiz there was," to borrow the Yip Harburg lyric from the Judy Garland movie evergreen. A compact bundle of energy, Hall gives off appropriate sparks as the fraudulent head of the Emerald City.
I really shortchanged Charlie Smalls' versatile and very fitting score when I first reviewed the show, and that was almost certainly because his lyrics, though functional, are rarely a match for his music.
The new scenery seems somewhat skimpier than Tom H. John's original designs, evidently to suit the needs of a revival that has been touring since last fall. But it's sufficiently eye-catching and in keeping with Geoffrey Holder's huge wardrobe of extravagant and colorful costumes. The lighting is fittingly garish, as well.
Besides the little Dorothy with the big and flexible voice (though with the familiar tinkering by the sound man at the console controls, it's difficult to determine much about either the size or true texture of any of the voices), the girl who induces her companions to "Ease on Down the Road," in the show's original hit number, there are a few other striking solos. Hall's next-to-closing "If You Believe," a song Lena Horne practically made her own, is a show-stopper, and so is Ella Mitchell's gospel delivery of "No Bad News" in this Wicked Witch of the West's amusing scene. Ann Duquesnay's reprise of "If You Believe," following her slinky account of "A Rested Body in a Rested Mind" as the Good Witch of the South, is another high point, but this performer will never erase the memory of the enchanting Dee Dee Bridgewater in one playgoer's mind.
"The Wiz" is long, too long. Patchy as William F. Brown's book is, there's too much of it, just as I'm afraid that George Faison's dance numbers, inventive as they are, are overextended. Costume designer Holder, by the way, is also responsible for the broad, entirely apt, direction of the book.
And Harold Wheeler's orchestrations of Smalls' tunes are again one of the musical's greatest assets.
"The Wiz" earns enough high marks to make it worth a visit, especially with the kids; though the last time I said this, the show in question, "Oliver," quit abruptly.
There are some musicals you expect to see back on Broadway. And some you don't. The Wiz is one I didn't. Yet it came whizzing back to Broadway last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater.
It even had its original 16-year-old star Stephanie Mills - who doesn't seem to have gotten older, simply worse - in its leading role. It originally opened at the beginning of 1975, and, despite mostly uncouraging notices ran on Broadway for 1672 performances.
That is a track record for the producers to ponder on - because I cannot imagine, although I could not know, that the notices are going to be any better this time around. Probably - were I to be guessing - worse. I could even envisage, savage.
The entire musical is based on L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which has been a standard children's story almost since it's first publication in 1900.
A year later Baum himself made a theatrical adaptation of the piece, and there have been other stage versions. But it was in Victor Fleming's 1939 movie, starring Judy Garland as the little Kansas girl whisked away on a cyclone along the yellow brick road to the Land of Oz, that the story received what was really its definitive treatment.
The idea of the musical was to provide a musical mixture of rock, gospel and soul music, written by Charlie Smalls, who provided score and lyrics.
The Wiz is intended as a new kind of fantasy, colorful, mysterious, opulent and fanciful. It was also obviously meant to be a fantasy for today - very modern, a dream dreamed by a space-age child.
The concept is perfectly good in theory but its practice is not made perfect. Smalls' music - vastly overamplified by the way - sounded oddly insistent and all too familiar. It had plenty of verve but lacked individuality.
Incidentally, I wrote the last five paragraphs in 1975. I feel that if producers can revive shows there is no reason why critics cannot revive notices.
However - and this is a whopping however - the show is not quite as good as it was in 1975. It has become cruder and cheaper.
The decor seems slightly different and it is now attributed to Peter Wolf, whereas it was by Tom H. John, but the overall image, as does the staging, remains that of Geoffrey Holder, who took over the whole show when it was on the road in 1974.
Ken Harper - the original producer - and Holder originally did wonders with the material - 1672 performances of wonders for a show that could so easily, and in a sense, so justifiably, have closed on its first night.
The new cast is not as good as the old cast. Even Stephanie Mills is not as good as Stephanie Mills, and even first time round she was scarcely great. In box-office terms, Yul Brynner she never was.
The others of the cast try hard in demanding circumstances. I admired them all - particularly Carl Hall, a cheerfully vicious Ella Mitchell, and a glamorous Anne Duquesnay.
But is this a musical that needed a second time round on Broadway? On the other hand - in musicals there is often another hand - it got remarkably lucky on its first.
You may well wonder why anyone would bother to revive ''The Wiz'' on Broadway only nine years after the original production - and only a few weeks after the film version last aired on network television. The answer, heaven knows, is not to be found in anything that happens on stage in the tacky touring production now parked at the Lunt-Fontanne. The real explanation, I suspect, has to do with the fact that school is out.
This edition of ''The Wiz'' is an ersatz version of the original show. Smart children and parents may well ease on down the road past the Lunt- Fontanne to any one of the 11 other Broadway houses where musicals are in residence. Whatever virtues ''The Wiz'' once possessed - and there were some - have vanished. In place of the bright original sets and lighting are crude backdrops, bathed in loud colors and smoke effects; Emerald City looks like a honeymoon suite at a Las Vegas hotel shortly after a major fire. Geoffrey Holder's staging and costumes, as well as George Faison's choreography, are still on tap, but the clothes look as if they were stapled together, not sewn, and the dancing is all calisthenics, no panache. Why bother to retell ''The Wizard of Oz'' in any form without magic?
''The Wiz,'' a black variation on L. Frank Baum's classic, got by the first time around because of the Charlie Smalls songs, the imaginative stage images, a relentless television commercial and a supporting cast that included such lustrous figures as Clarice Taylor, Tiger Haynes, Ted Ross, Mabel King, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Hinton Battle (now of ''The Tap Dance Kid''). The book was and is inept. The familiar story is told so confusingly that any child coming to ''The Wizard of Oz'' for the first time would find it impossible to follow. The jokes derive from the occasional invocations of street vernacular - as typified by the scarecrow's insistence on begging Dorothy for ''spare change.''
The cast gathered at the Lunt-Fontanne contains not a single performer who can act. The nonacting does, however, come in a variety of styles: There are screechers, mumblers and pointers. Only three members of the tinnily miked company can sing - Gregg Baker (the Lion), Ella Mitchell (who peppers the wicked witch Evillene with Louis Armstrong scat) and Stephanie Mills, the sole returning veteran of the original cast.
The tiny Miss Mills plays Dorothy, of course, and it is simply amazing how little the actress's appearance and performance have changed since she first undertook her role at age 16. Now, as then, Miss Mills fails to deliver the meaning (and often the words) of her spoken lines; she looks supremely bored with her fellow players and dances like a windup doll. Her singing voice is probably more appropriate to a recording studio than a large theater, and, these days, she seems inclined to hoard it until the second half of each number. But her final rendition of ''Home'' - Mr. Smalls's answer to ''Over the Rainbow'' - is the only genuine outpouring of feeling now left in the entire show.
What made ''The Wiz'' surprisingly moving the first time around was that its creators found a connection between Baum's Kansas fantasy and the pride of urban black Americans. When Glinda, the good witch, musically instructed Dorothy to ''believe in herself,'' she seemed to be delivering a broader inspirational message. (Lena Horne, who played Glinda in the film version, made the message explicit when she sang this powerful anthem in her one-woman show.) ''The Wiz'' was hardly a great musical in 1975, but it had something to say, and it said it with verve and integrity. It's depressing to watch a once-fervent expression of black self- respect and talent be spilled on the stage as if it were a trunkload of marked-down, damaged goods.