By Charles Karel Bouley

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Photos Courtesy NBC

Talk about a tough audience: Friday, Dec. 3rd NBC television’s live production of The Wiz couldn’t have fallen on more cynical eyes; mine. I’m a 53-year-old-musical-theatre-loving-gay man that grew up in Long Beach, CA. As a child I sat with wonder in front of my Saturday morning TV show, one of the best, Wonderama ( a talk show that treated kids as grownups but with lots of fun) watching one of Broadway’s youngest stars, Stephanie Mills, sing Home from a play all the way from New York called The Wiz. I remember her performance to this day, can tell you what she was wearing, and I was a pre-teen. She was perfection. I HAD to do that.

Cut to the young entertainment reporter writing for huge music publications like Billboard attending a premiere at the Cinerama Dome Theatre on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood of Diana Ross’ latest film, that same play. I loved Diana Ross, still do. And while she was terribly miscast in the role, the movie still was a thing of camp and wonder not being done at its time and Michael Jackson’s performances were so great, along with Nipsey Russell, Lena Horne, Mabel King…oh, the talent. They made a star vehicle worthwhile. To this day Brand New Day a huge number written by Luther Vandross, in the film is one of Diana Ross’ best recordings ever; she sang the hell out of that song, along with Michael and the others, with pure, sheer, joy.

So NBC had big shoes to fill for me, and their track record dismal. While no one will come right out and say it, the last two productions, Peter Pan and The Sound of Music were dreadful, overblown throwbacks to 1950s TV which often really tried, but didn’t always hit the mark.

Well, from the opening moments until newcomer Shanice Williams was called upon to deliver THE 11 o’clock song, the one that makes the Broadway crowd that’s antsy and sitting for a few hours in a darkened theatre rise to their feet and scream, in this case Home I simply could not turn away.

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Williams and Mills

The fact that Stephanie Mills, who can still belt out a tune, was Auntie Em was bittersweet for me; maybe for her, too. I don’t know, but it had to be quite an experience for her to be back in Oz. Williams’ voice is a cross between sweet and belting, not quite the power of Amber Riley but just the voice a young Dorothy would have. She’s given the chance to soar a few times, during “Be A Lion” especially, and during “Home” as she finally let that star making moment creep in to her and take over, as her left leg rose up during a note with a little kick and she was soaring, well, a star was indeed born.

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David Alan Grier Stole the Show as the Lion

I’ve ridden motorcycles up the coast of CA with David Alan Grier to and from Monterey for a race called Laguna Seca, and I had no idea that man could practically steal every scene of a musical. Ted Ross on Broadway and in the movie an belt, can wail, can sing, and the Lion’s role needs that; well guess what, not only did Grier sail effortlessly with the vocals, but he can hold a camera’s attention like no other. Bravo.

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Ne-Yo As the Tin Man

And Ne-Yo, you got me. The fun began with “Slide Some Oil To Me” and then your moment came on “What Would I Do If I Could Feel?” You had all the heart this production needed all along, Tin Man.

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Elijah Kelley one of the most soulful performances Michael Jackson has ever done is “You Can’t Win” on that scarecrow post followed immediately with him and his long time friend Diana Ross easing down a road of emotionally overwhelming size and you literally fell in to the role with ease. You made the songs your own, your dancing electric and how you did it in all that makeup is beyond me. You also had the best “hair.”

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Mary J. Blige was a bit young and beautiful to be an evil queen, but it was fun hearing her camp her way through “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.” Uzo Aduba, yes, crazy eyes from Orange Is The New Black was the biggest surprise. If “Home” is the 11 o’Clock song then “Believe In Yourself” is the 10:45 and it was hers. She was ravishing as Glinda the Good Witch and belted out the number with ease.

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Uzo Aduba and Williams

But it was Shanice William’s night to win or loose, and win it she did. She’s a newcomer no more, and Broadway offers, other movies, the treadmill of agents, manager, publicists, a world she only dreamed of, a world like Oz, is now hers. I hate to tell her that like Oz it’s all a facade, but she’ll learn. In the mean time, it will be fun to watch her develop.

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NBC needed to win so behind the scenes the stars shined as well. They wanted Charlie Smalls’ score updated along with George Faison’s choreography . So, they hired Fatima Robinson who is a choreographer and video director with Pharrell to her credit. As for direction, possibly one of the biggest jobs, NBC hired Kenny Leon/ his Broadway creds includes “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Fences.” As for the show’s book, they needed that updated as well, so Leon brought in Harvey Fierstein, fresh off his Tony win for Kinky Boots.

I didn’t understand Queen Latifah as the Wiz, I didn’t mind the gender bending but it just didn’t make any sense. She was fun, as Latifah always is, and certainly has proven she can sing over the years, but the Wiz is, well, an old grey magician. Oh well, it was fine, too, just for the costumes alone.

Emmys will be handed out next year to cast members, crew, it was that good. The revised play will be a hit when it reopens on Broadway next year, especially if they keep Williams, Ne-yo, Paul Tazewell’s costumes, inspired by the creations of Geoffrey Holder, were stars themselves and if he doesn’t win, there’s no justice.

Well NBC you’ve proven you can bring live theatre, which is what this really was, back to television in a fresh way, a way that feels contemporary yet one that connects with the hearts of the viewers. As for TV musicals this year, The Wiz wins.

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