WOZ: A Rock Cabaret

WOZ
Kimberly Lawson, Kevin Webb, James Nedrud and Edward Fraim

Listen. The limited run of “WOZ: A Rock Cabaret” at the Victory Gardens Theater boasts Tony Award nominee Andre De Shields as a cast member. This fact alone guarantees quality entertainment.

De Shields, a three time Jeff Award winner, recently appeared in the delightful late 2015 senior-focused musical “Gotta Dance.” I was also privileged to watch him work in Mary Zimmerman’s lavish 2013 production of “The Jungle Book.” His talent and charisma are literally the stuff of legend, a diverse career spanning 47 years and counting.

But I am very pleased to report that “WOZ” offers so much more than the fantastic musical stylings of one Andre De Shields. Created by Will Rogers and Kimberly Lawson, who performs double duty as the show’s unorthodox Dorothy, the work is a joyous 75-minute reimagining of book and film classic “The Wizard of Oz.” The plot is moved through the device of a contemporary pop music soundtrack sung by powerhouse performers. It begins with Kelly Clarkson and ends with Roxette. And it works so well.

However it’s not just the music that brings fresh perspective to a worn and loved American classic. The show is unabashedly naughty, adult fun. Neil Patrick Harris lookalike Kevin Webb brings physical comedy chops and a soaring voice to Dorothy’s BFF, the Scarecrow. In Webb’s take, the straw man is in need of more than a brain. In fact he’s got a little extra stuffing in his pants for James Nedrud’s Tin Man.

The two actors exhibit fluid chemistry, no surprise having witnessed them perform together in Pride Films and Plays 2015 winner, “Angry Fags.” Their dramatic skills were on full display in that work, but I had no idea Webb and Nedrud could sing and dance like a couple of impish angels. Add Edward Fraim to the mix as the Cowardly Lion and this Dorothy with the ruby Converse All-Stars is more than ready to bop her way down the Yellow Brick Road.

Along the way of course, Dorothy and her unlikely gang meet with Clara D’Onfrio’s Glinda the Good Witch as well as Heather Currie’s Wicked version. These two familiar foils are invested with fun quirks that add nuance to otherwise one-dimensional characters. Who knew that Glinda was such a spotlight-hogging diva? Or that the Wicked Witch might just be a mean, misunderstood drunk? Both women are marvelous with huge, projecting voices but I was especially impressed by D’Onofrio’s range. Mariah Carey is a tough challenge but she moves through “Hero” with alternating restraint and release and never misses a note. Pitch perfect.

Once Dorothy and her companions reach Oz, they find Andre De Shields, perfectly cast as the enigmatic, legendary Wizard. My first thought on his performance is that Guns N’ Roses should probably retire “Welcome to the Jungle” from the band’s live set. That number has been officially OWNED by a slightly built senior citizen with plenty of sex appeal left to spare. De Shields’ Wizard is scary, enticing and powerful, pivoting believably to vulnerability through his exposure as an omniscient fraud.

Helmed by Scott Gryder with musical direction from Nick Sula, “WOZ: A Rock Cabaret” is wonderfully captivating. It makes something new and exciting out of beloved tradition – without being blasphemous. In fact love and respect for the source material is never in doubt. It’s unfortunate that the run is so brief. It’s the only real transgression of this sinfully fun summer theater offering.

“WOZ: A Rock Cabaret” runs through July 17 at the Victory Garden Theater, 2433 N Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 773-871-3000 or visit the Victory Garden Theater website.

Gotta Dance

Earlier this month, I attended the press premiere of the delightful “Potted Potter” with my boyfriend’s mother. As we walked down a hallway to take our seats for the show, we passed a promotional poster for “Gotta Dance,” the latest production from Broadway in Chicago. The faces of Andre De Shields (“The Jungle Book”), Georgia Engel (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) and Stefanie Powers (“Hart to Hart”) jumped out at us immediately.

One stage icon and two small screen legends would have been more than enough to pull me in, but then I read the production’s synopsis: a “new Broadway-bound musical comedy about professional basketball’s first ever aged 60-and-older dance team.” Beloved performers from my childhood, dancing and the prospect of meaty roles for people over 40? A thousand times yes.

I was fortunate enough to secure reviewer duties for this week’s press opening, featuring a book by Tony Award-nominee Chad Beguelin and Tony Award-winner Bob Martin. The show’s music is the product of Matthew Sklar, Nell Benjamin and a young, upcoming kid by the name of Marvin Hamlisch(!). And “Gotta Dance” choreography is furnished by “Kinky Boots” Tony Award-winner Jerry Mitchell, in partnership with Nick Kenkel.

From writers to technical work and performers, “Gotta Dance” boasts an impressive pedigree of talent. Yet as we know, the presence of a chorus line of theater legends does not always result in success. I entered the Bank of America Theatre excited yet philosophical.

A resolve to remain impartial dissolved in mere seconds as the tremendously winning ensemble took the stage for “Just Look at Me Now.” The sassy song emphatically and proudly announces a unique and thrilling musical theater experience. I could write thousands of words about my love for this show. Like a fine wine, the production’s experienced artists and technicians have only improved with age.

Imagine an episode of “The Golden Girls,” packed with the same emotion, wit and acting talent, washed down with an energizing song and dance chaser. The press night opening crowd for “Gotta Dance” quite literally went wild. The momentum never slows. In yet another unconventional Broadway musical turn, the second act is actually stronger than the first. Take that “Dirty Dancing.”

Though the fairly straightforward plot can be described in a sentence, there is so much nuance in this semi-biographical story. The stilted estrangement of dance team member Bea (Lillias White) from her granddaughter Kendra (Joanna A. Jones) is a touching commentary on intergenerational misunderstanding. The two women meet three times on “Princess,” a lovely song which traces the evolution of their relationship as the geriatric team prepares for its debut. White and Jones have the vocal chops to convey the lightest wistfulness before belting a powerhouse finish that reaches the farthest recesses of the theater. They have marvelous chemistry.

Camilla (Nancy Ticotin) and Joanne (Powers) bring the sexy to the stage as two members of the “First Wives Club” with something to prove — namely that they still have all of “it.” In the sultry musical number “Como No,?” the 58-year-old Ticotin had me staring at my junior legs with disappointment. It’s no stretch of the imagination to believe Camilla with a much younger, satisfied lover. Yowza.

I could scarcely contain my glee with a subplot involving blossoming love between Ron (De Shields) and Dottie (Engel). The two veteran performers are a delightful match. De Shields brings moves of the swing era and tragic comic nuance to his role as a grieving widower resolved to give up hiding. And Engel, well what can I say? She simply steals the show. As Dottie, adorable professional schoolteacher and devoted fan of ’80s and ’90s hip-hop, she is the glue that holds the production together.

The vibrant and wonderful “Gotta Dance” is more than a tasty trifle. The suffering of Alzheimer’s disease, the pain of dreams deferred, the cold sting of rejection from a starter husband — the production is not laughing at the elderly. Instead it giggles and hurts with them, never for a second allowing doubt that older, wiser and sweeter makes for a satisfying product.

By the time the beautiful cast takes the stage for “Get Up,” the rousing finale to this multi-dimensional creation, audiences will wish for a third act. I have spent an embarrassing part of the morning scouring YouTube for unauthorized versions of the track — to no avail. I leave you with two urgent recommendations: see this production as soon and often as possible, and if an original cast soundtrack is released, could you let me know? Valentine’s Day is right around the corner and I just “Gotta Dance.”

“Gotta Dance” runs through Jan. 17, 2016 at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.