Naima Dawson is a published author, Chicago playwright, and professor. Her career accomplishments cover more than 20 years in Arts Entertainment. Her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and her Master of Education from DePaul University solidifies her ability to bridge the two worlds between Arts and Education. She is the writer and producer of Your Call! Late Night Improv & Sketch Comedy for Grown Folks, as seen in production at the Apollo Theater and The Mercury Theater.
Pictured (l-r): Sydney Charles, Gilbert Domally, Chuckie Benson and Steven Perkins. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Review: THE WIZ at Kokandy Productions
By Naima Dawson
THE WIZ is and always will be the Black Metropolis of fairytale wonderlands. I was raised on the Broadway album after my mother saw the production starring Stephanie Mills. When it released on television in 1984, I remember watching with my eyes glued waiting to see Michael Jackson. To me, THE WIZ is one of those masterpieces that should only be touched by artists at the top of their game. It takes vocal bravery and honed acting skills to unpack all the magic this musical offers.
On a full moon night in Chicago, Kokandy Productions showed how brazen and talented their artists are as they blew the roof off Theater Wit with their revival of THE WIZ. Directed by Lili-Anne Brown, THE WIZ is easily the best musical I have reviewed to date. There are no simple songs in THE WIZ, but the cast members sang every one as if they were awakening the dead.
I must say this cast makes it real hard to adhere to any audience etiquette. I took my mother and I had to nudge her a few times to encourage her to lower her voice as she insisted on singing along with the cast. The comedic timing throughout this production is priceless. The entire cast had the audience in complete stitches. Sydney Charles is an incredible talent, who delivers a stunning performance as Dorothy. She projects an incredible vocal range and delivers every song with perfection. The power in her voice will activate an array of emotions that commands the listener’s attention. Gilbert Domally as The Scarecrow looks innocent, but his Motown voice with a hint of Gospel had me hypnotized and wanting more. I honestly didn’t want him to stop singing. This young man displays such control and he sings with such conviction, that he could sing names listed in the white pages and make you believe he knows each person personally. Steve Perkins’ charm will win you over in the Tin Man role, and his velvet voice is going to take you to some nostalgic place when he sings “What Would I Do If I Could Feel.” I was ready to flick on my cell phone light and wave my hand back and forth as if I was at a concert. Perkins is a natural crooner. And when Chuckie Benson came out on stage, I almost lost it. He had me under the seat in a fit of laughter as he dominated the stage as the chic cowardly lion. Benson is beyond hilarious — I could not stop laughing and clapping at the same time when he hit the stage. Then there is the incredible Nicole Michelle Haskins who plays both Aunt Em and Evillene. Her impressive vocal thunder immediately deliver goosebumps in her opening song as Aunt Em. When she returns to the stage as the ever so fierce Evillene, Haskins has the theater rocking to “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” and cracking up with her animated evil witch antics. Her commitment to both characters will make you believe two separate actresses performed each role. Frederick Harris who played the Wiz has a voice made for Broadway. He delivers every note with great purpose, and the way his voice fills the entire space is magical. Angela Alise serves up so much originality to her Addaperle (the good witch of the north). Alise could easily have her own sitcom. Finally, there is TJ Crawford who plays a multitude of small characters with nothing but gut wrenching laughter.
Virginia Varland’s creatively interpretive costumes added a unique identity to the production. The same applies to Breon Arzell and his masterful choreography, which is instrumental to this entire production. The band, under the direction of Jimmy Morehead is phenomenal. They kept the audience jamming from start to finish.
This production exemplifies what I love about Chicago. Deep in the seams of this city rest a wealth of artists who are anointed with such a wide range of talent. Lili-Anne Brown kept the continuity of THE WIZ, found the most amazing cast, and laced the production with so many magical moments. Every single actor and dancer in this play is phenomenal. THE WIZ is fairytale magic and I really did not want this show to end. I wanted to hit a rewind button and watch it again. This production should never have an empty seat. Indulge in one of the greatest musical moments you might experience this year. Put on your glitter shoes and click your way down to Theatre Wit to see THE WIZ.