Theater & Dance
Preview
"The Wiz"

By: Music and lyrics by William Smalls, and book by William F Brown
Produced by: Sunnyvale Community Players
Directed by: Gary Stanford Jr.
When: April 27-May 19, 2019
Where: Sunnyvale Theatre, Sunnyvale Community Center, 550 East Remington Drive, Sunnyvale
Tickets: $32-$38. Visit https://www.sunnyvaleplayers.org

Smita Patibanda
Christopher Berger / Sunnyvale Community Players
Smita Patibanda is Dorothy in the Sunnyvale Community Players production of "The Wiz," playing April 26-May 19, 2019.
'Ease on down, ease on down that road'
for the Sunnyvale Community Players
Huge, talented cast marshalled for 'The Wiz'
April 26, 2019

“I’m having an absolute blast,” said Gary Stanford Jr., about directing “The Wiz” for Sunnyvale Community Players, “working with this cast. They are all talented.

“Mostly, they are unknown in the Bay Area. They don’t get a lot of gigs in mainstream musical theater, which doesn’t tend to cater to African-Americans.”

The only shows generally seen with large black casts, he pointed out during a recent phone call, are “The Color Purple,” “Violet,” and “Once on this Island.”

“The Wiz” — which won seven Tony Awards in 1975 — hasn’t been done by an adult cast in the San Francisco Bay Area for 25 years, Stanford said.

The show, music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls (and others) and book by William F. Brown, is a retelling of L. Frank Baum's 1900 children's novel, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

But it’s done with plenty of sass and funk, borrowed from the hippest African-American culture of the 1970s.

The show bombed on Broadway — at first — then hit its stride and became big success, not only winning a bunch of awards, but running for four years and 1,672 performances.

The 1978 movie — starring Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and others — also more or less bombed at the box office, but then became a cult favorite. The song “Ease on Down the Road” was a hit, from the musical and from the movie. Michael Jackson sang it in the movie.

“The Wiz Live!” aired on NBC in 2015.

Stanford described the stage show, which opens in Sunnyvale on Saturday, April 27, 2019.

“It takes place in middle of the 1970s, captures African-America culture during that decade,” Stanford said, “with the jive talk, the slang talk invented on the East Coast. It was the decade of being really cool. You have your afro, your tight bell-bottom pants going on.

“And then with the movement,” said Stanford, who is also a well-known choreographer. “’The Wiz’ was done at the beginning of disco. The whole disco scene, the emergence of the LGBT community, it all blew up with the vogue culture. It was uplifting the gay community, and hip-hop. All of the most popular music in the ‘60s. ‘The Wiz’ throws all of that in the exact same story line, throwing all of this in with African-American culture.”

Of his cast, Stanford said he has “a spoil of riches. Normally, you get four or five strong people, and everybody else has to try to perform up to that.

“For ‘The Wiz,’ every lead and supporting role is outstanding. Everyone steals the act from each other. Every time we rehearse, someone adds to their performance. I push the cast, a lot of dancing, a lot of staging, and they are eating it up.

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“Usually, it’s more me teaching them. With this cast, they just take it and run with it. They kind of take it on their own — it’s just up to me to drive this bus and make sure we’re going in the right direction.”

There are 43 people in the cast, including six children, who play mice police and munchkins. Everyone else is an adult or older teenager, Stanford said.

Some of the principals:

Juanita Harris as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. “She's got a show-stopping number,” said Stanford. “She’s a headliner in a supporting role.”

James Creer as the Lion. "James is a delightful person and professional level performer," said Stanford. "He’s been so committed to our production that he custom designed his outfit and had it built out of state. He also created his own hair design for the show."

Smita Patibanda is Dorothy. “Quite unusual,” said Stanford. “We don’t always see Indian performers leading a show.”

Victor Ragsale, a senior at Stanford, is Scarecrow. “He’s a triple threat,” said Stanford. “Outstanding dancer, singer, actor. Also, he’s the fights captain. He has in-depth knowledge about fight choreography and lift safety. We have an unusual amount of lifts, not being able to fly.”

Edward Clark is the Tinman. “His song is a show stopper,” said Stanford.

Pasha Stanford, as Addaperle, the good witch of the North, “completely steals the stage,” Stanford said.

Josua Lutian, a male, plays Glinda the good witch. “Fantastic vocalist,” said Stanford.

Evan Dayce is the wizard. “A force to be reckoned with,” said Stanford. “He’s really talented. He just finished filming his second feature film ... his acting is so powerful. .. . He made the character his own. I am excited for the Bay Area to see him.”

Stanford, himself a very good singer, dancer and actor, shares the same frustration many black performers have in the San Francisco Bay Area theater scene — it can be very hard to get cast. “It’s sad, it’s said for many of us. We’ve all been to a lot of auditions and not even considered for roles we’d be great at.”

On the other hand, he’s getting plenty of directing and choreographing gigs.

“The Wiz” is his fifth directing job in three years. As well as appearing eight shows over the last few years.

“I’m trying this and that,” he said.

John Orr is a member of the America Theatre Critics Association. Email him at johnorr@regardingarts.com


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