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‘The Wiz Live!’ Review: NBC Production Eases on Down the Road With Style

Hate watchers are going to have to find another project to harp on

Coming off the heels of “The Sound of Music Live!” and “Peter Pan Live!” this fall’s “The Wiz Live!” always felt destined to be a third strike for NBC rather than the proverbial third time’s a charm.

Blame it on cheesy, over-the-top performances from the first two live shows, or on the never-ending casting chase that left us with leads like Carrie Underwood as Maria or Christopher Walken as Captain Hook. Or perhaps fingers could be pointed at Fox, which commissioned its own live event in “Grease: Live,” which airs in late January. Sure, “The Wiz” is a Tony award-winning musical in its own right, but when compared to “Grease” it doesn’t quite have the same ring — based on the title few probably recognized that this was the story of Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz.

Fittingly, “The Wiz” is probably also the best production NBC has put out, despite itchy fingers lining up to live tweet the entire affair. In the end, those hate-watchers had little to complain about other than occasional uneven camera angles, a missing Toto (he disappeared after the first scene) and the long three-hour running time; strong performances, fun dialogue and dazzling numbers rounded out an overall solid outing this time around. This cast members didn’t do a remake — they made something classic into their own.

Rather than going the celeb casting route, producers tossed the net wider than the first two experiments, finding newcomer Shanice Williams from an open casting call. It’s no question that decision was to the publicity department’s detriment, despite names such as Mary J. Blige and Queen Latifah rounding the cast out. In the end it was the right call though, as Williams pulled the “Live!” game from under the weighty pressure of stunt casting — with great name recognition comes great expectations, and all that jazz.

On the surface, the all-black production fit with television’s newly discovered diversity mandate (really? Not only white people watch television?!) but even deeper than that it managed to put a fresh spin on a classic story that’s been retold time and again through various generations. Learning from the past two productions, producers also managed to ditch the kitsch this time around, relying on beautiful performances from Cirque du Soleil to transition viewers into that wonderful world of Oz rather than cheesy smoke effects and extra glitter.

All right, so maybe there was a little of that, not to mention a lot of disco-funk, rave type things going on once we were actually in The Emerald City. But here it worked with the surreal numbers, rather than against what were comparably weaker performances in Live! events from the past.

In terms of reaching a broader, younger audience, “The Wiz” did a standout job there as well. In addition to catchy performances by vocalists with heavy chops, everything from the colorful costumes and the dialogue received an update. Rather than rely on the original script, jokes about sushi, heading to the bar, and trying to be “funny like Eddie Murphy” were sprinkled in for an updated approach, while Dorothy’s “kicks” were of the sparkly white variety rather than the standard red.

As promised in the promotional stills, the Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley), Lion (David Alan Grier) and Tin-Man (Ne-Yo) were scarier looking than your average Oz monkeys, further enhanced by strong performances by the trio. Ne-Yo in particular killed it with his robotics and updated love woes, although Grier nailed the lion twitch and Scarecrow’s flopsy movements captured the essence of a lovable character perfectly.

It all culminated in a friendship we were sad to see break once things climaxed with Glinda (Emmy-winner Uzo Aduba), The Wiz (Latifah) and Evillene (Blige), whose respective performances added just the right dash of star power to the night — even if the Wicked Witch of the West’s “liquidation” was a little anticlimactic.

Where “The Wiz” indeed stumbled was in its aforementioned length. Once the trio of companions came on board there was still more than two hours to kill, which were drawn out by magical poppies and a plethora of song and dance. If musicals are your thing you probably felt right at home during those moments; it’s those moments that allow each of the cast members a moment to shine in their own number, an important component when attracting a strong cast. And unlike most televised projects of this nature, you’d be hard-pressed to find a standout weak link. If you were one of those tuning in live in hopes of seeing something go down, however, it probably felt overdrawn and unnecessary — especially since so little went wrong overall.

In fact for a three-hour live performance with so many moving components, “The Wiz” certainly raised the bar with its fresh and unique take — one that could stand up to the classic 1939 flick any day. It’s actually a damned shame that it won’t hit the ratings threshold for the chart-topping Sound of Music (18.6 million), but here’s hoping it falls slightly higher than the subsequent Peter Pan offering (9.2 million).

As for those who went to bed with itchy Twitter fingers? Sadly, it seems as though they’ll just have to wait for “Grease Live” in January.