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'The Wiz' with Ashanti

The Tin Man rules. The Scarecrow and the Lion hug the stage with their talent, and the choreography and costumes for "The Wiz" are deliciously ingenious.

Of course, theatergoers are not meant to ease on down the road to Encores! to appreciate the supporting players and dancers. The selling points of this rare revival of the 1974 black update of "The Wizard of Oz" were Grammy-winning pop-princess Ashanti as Dorothy and comedy star Orlando Jones as the Wiz - both in their New York stage debuts.

Despite her winsome presence, Ashanti proves not to be a natural theater actor, and, even more surprising, her silvery voice sounds thin and bland against the pros in the alarmingly amplified house. Jones works up a froth of fervor as the defrocked wizard, but he is not much of a singer. The one star who does justify the billing is LaChanze ("The Color Purple"), but Aunt Em/Glinda shows up only at the start and for her tear-off-the-gospel-roof "Believe in Yourself" at the end.

Otherwise, the impact of the slick, ambitious evening depends on one's affection for the musical, a middle-of-the-road, rock-and-soul extravaganza that already seemed old-fashioned, uneven and a little schlocky when new. Although the Tony-winning show ran four years, it is far more famous as the weird 1978 movie that had an entirely different book, not to mention an overage Diana Ross as Dorothy, Richard Pryor as the Wiz and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow.

Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler - the smart team from "In the Heights" - bring invention and affection to William F. Brown's sweet book and Charlie Small's repetitious but hit-sprinkled score. (Incidentally, Luther Vandross, not Small, wrote the infectious "Brand New Day.")

Since Encores! requires an onstage orchestra and "The Wiz" requires lots of set changes, the relatively simple scenery is augmented with Paul Tazewell's witty costumes and with terrific dancers as visual storytellers. For example, the tornado is really twisting, spiraling limbs. The Yellow Brick Road is made of hanging lights. The Munchkins roll around on office chairs.

Tichina Arnold, as the Wicked Witch of the West, nails the evil attitude with her down-and-dirty "No Bad News." But my heart belongs to James Monroe Iglehart's big mushball of a Lion, Christian Dante White's lanky rag-doll Scarecrow and, especially, Joshua Henry's elegantly singing, tapping Tin Man. At Tuesday's preview, Nigel, the dog who plays Toto, kept dashing across the stage as if he thought of something he'd rather be doing. Everyone's a critic.


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