“I found but one aspect of Rae Colon’s source material supremely disappointing. And that is the work’s bi-polar relationship with female empowerment. For example, Dawn is a tough if imperfect advocate drowned by indecision and male subjugation. At the same time, Tilikum’s orca lady neighbors are presented as fearful survivors by turn, morphing into an aquatic iteration of Macbeth’s witches by play’s end. Tilikum is ultimately stripped of his agency, left understood as the tool of white male imprisonment and female bewitchment. The awkward ending undermines an otherwise powerful emerging female voice in contemporary theater.”
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.