Freighted with memories, nostalgia, love and a long-ago movie that starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, NBC’s “The Wiz Live!” was almost doomed before it began. But the message and meaning of this Broadway chestnut is that “doom” is just a word and home is where the heart is. Thursday’s live revival embraced that message and — above all — that spirit. Hence, the bottom line: a winner.
Newcomer Shanice Williams — all of 19 — had to capture a butterfly by the name of Dorothy. And if the butterfly occasionally eluded her grasp, her voice did not. The New Jersey native, with high school musicals as training, rendered the classics with beauty and style. Her Dorothy didn’t have the dramatic heft of a Stephanie Mills (Auntie Em here, Dorothy on Broadway) or Ross. But then who could? In support, she had pros such as David Alan Grier (Cowardly Lion), Ne-Yo (Tin Man) and Elijah Kelley (Scarecrow). “The Wiz” is built around big, fleeting moments, and the performer better make the most of them. These three did. Queen Latifah as The Wiz — in a body-length sequined emerald gown and topped with a hair helmet of green, white and other indeterminate colors? Yeah, she made the most of hers, too. Meanwhile, Mary J. Blige as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, pretty much stole the whole show, set included.
Kenny Leon’s direction — to borrow from the old Johnny Mercer song — accentuated the positive and downplayed the downers. Sidney Lumet’s 1978 movie took a dystopian spin, seeing Dorothy’s journey — not wrongly, by the way — as a metaphor for the African-American experience, of oppression and of the possibility of hope at the end of that rainbow. Leon, a veteran Broadway and TV director, decided we all needed a little dose of happiness instead.
We do. He and the terrific cast of “The Wiz Live!” delivered.