Najiya Clayborn, Amaya Brockingham, Chase Dean, & Tracy Scott in The Wiz. Photo by Clinton Bennet.
Adapted from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum
Book by William F. Brown, Music & Lyrics by Charlie Smalls
Directed by Erica Bledsaw
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
On the west side of Louisville, across the mythic “9th Street divide” (or is it 10th Street? Or who cares?) A new initiative in arts education has sprung up at the Louisville Central Community Center (LCCC) at 12th and Muhammad Ali Blvd. Under the direction of Erica Bledsaw, visual and theatre arts education for young people is being fostered. Various instructors work on contract, but Bledsaw takes charge of the theatre classes herself. After she was hired as Coordinator of Fine Arts, she developed an eight-week pilot program in which kids would audition, train and rehearse a production before presenting public performances under the banner of Youth Repertory Theater Troupe of Louisville.
Although the auditions were open to all comers, Bledsaw believes the location in the Russell neighborhood may have dissuaded students from other parts of the city, and the resulting company is exclusively African American. However inadvertent, if perhaps inevitable, that result may seem, it places the program in a unique position, one that Bledsaw embraces as a grand ambition: to educate a new generation of Black artists in Louisville. After a holiday program in 2015, she has just finished a summer program culminating in a production of The Wiz.
[divider]The Wiz is a natural choice for such a company, a highly appealing and commercial selection designed for mass appeal. The easy-going, loose adaptation of the L. Frank Baum classic is both a corrective and compliment to the iconic MGM film that informs the childhood of several generations, a reconceiving of the story for Black audiences that is also a solid entertainment with broad appeal.
It also presents challenges for such a new company, but Bledsaw meets them with a good deal of support from top-notch professionals like Music Director Gayle, who shapes a student combo into a funky and spontaneous accompaniment, and John Keen and Sydney Rhodes, who fashion lively choreography that asks just enough of the ensemble without overtaxing them.
The acting may feel underdeveloped, but the ensemble moves well and the leads all have strong voices, even if they were sometimes betrayed by a temperamental sound system. Najiya Clayhorn was a marvel as Dorothy, long on charm and stage presence in an adorable pink dress, she betrayed a lack of any substantial character work, but sang like nobody’s business; a little girl with a big voice and an innate understanding of what to do with it. Tracy Scott as Scarecrow, Chase Dean as Tinman, and Amaya Brockingham as Lion, filled the happy band of pilgrims following the yellow brick road with style energy, and good humor. Jurni Woodson singing was not as powerful, but she brought a sassy characterization to her Wiz, and Aujunique Dilliard was a sharp-tongued, Evilene, the Wicked Witch of the West, making a strong impression, albeit with a lack of any physical threat of presence, an important ingredient for any good villain.
The first act flowed well, with energy and clean blocking, but act two had a few bumps in the road in scene transitions, and the production experienced some difficulties ironing out the wrinkles that arise from the more complex narrative demands of the later passages. There were a few moments when cast members stood awkwardly behind the focus of action, such as Ms. Clayborn’s big show-closing number, “Home.”
[divider]The sold out audience ate it up with great enthusiasm, and if the production engenders some of the patronizing attitude that is difficult to avoid when kids take any stage – “aren’t they adorable?” – even this reviewer, who is capable of great cynicism, was won over by the fact that they were, in fact, pretty adorable. This Wiz was, if nothing else, irresistible. But make no mistake, there was real talent and ability on the stage, and, aside from the all around good work from the principals, Kennedy Maddox stood out in the ensemble for her dance movements, which were just a little sharper and more fully extended than the rest. She also had stage presence of notable dignity that seemed much more adult and self-possessing than a youth of 15 years.
Yet Bledsaw’s accomplishment here is not the outmoded liberal cliché of bringing dignity to disadvantaged inner city kids. First, these kids are beyond that, and second, they come from all over, including Ballard High School, located in the heart of East End privilege. The skills we find in a young musician like Tim French, who drew a fat, Hammond B3-like sound from his synthesizer, likely come from education and a supportive family. These kids aren’t necessarily lacking for positive reinforcement, they are just relishing the opportunity to do this type of work and find an audience.
Another part of the LCCC vision is a new 350-seat theatre space that will begin construction before the end of the year, and will be christened Grand Lyric Theater @ Old Walnut Street in honor of two vintage movie theaters, the Grand and the Lyric, that were located on the 600 block of what is now Muhammad Ali Blvd. Such a venue would be unique west of 7th Street, and an appealing resource to local performance groups anxious for fresh spaces and fresh audiences.
That large ambition may not quite be realized in the estimable work Ms. Bledsaw and her cohorts are finishing this summer, but what they have accomplished in one 8-week program is impressive, and LCCC appears to have both the financial and emotional support they need to push on into the future. Only time will tell exactly how far-reaching their impact will be.
July 26 & August 2 @ 11:00am
July 29, 30, August 5, 6 @ 7:00pm
Youth Repertory Theatre Troupe of Louisville
Louisville Central Community Center
1300 West Muhammad Ali Blvd.
Louisville, Kentucky 40203
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.