Arts

Stage Review

An exuberant journey down the yellow brick road in ‘The Wiz’

Steven Martin is Tinman, Elle Borders is Scarecrow, Brandon G. Green is Cowardly Lion, and Salome Smith is Dorothy in “The Wiz.”
Mark S. Howard
Steven Martin is Tinman, Elle Borders is Scarecrow, Brandon G. Green is Cowardly Lion, and Salome Smith is Dorothy in “The Wiz.”

Much has already been written and said about the centrality of black culture in last weekend’s royal wedding, including a beautifully moving performance of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me’’ by a gospel choir and a wisdom-laden address by the Most Rev. Michael Bruce Curry, the first African-American leader of the Episcopal Church.

Those of us of a certain vintage can recall when an institution that was only slightly less white than the British monarchy — Broadway — was also a beneficiary of African-American idioms. Back in 1975, “The Wiz’’ burst onto the scene, a reworking of “The Wizard of Oz’’ that featured an all-black cast and told the story of Dorothy & Co. to the accompaniment of rhythm and blues, pop, soul, gospel, and funk.

Then, in 1978, an entire generation plugged into “The Wiz’’ via a film version that starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. Three years ago, a new generation got acquainted with the show from NBC’s broadcast of “The Wiz Live!,’’ starring Mary J. Blige and Queen Latifah.

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Now comes Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s production of “The Wiz,’’ directed with elan by Dawn M. Simmons and featuring buoyantly propulsive choreography by Jean Appolon. Simmons, who has described “The Wiz’’ as a “cultural touchpoint’’ for her when she was growing up, offers a New Orleans-flavored take on the musical, complete with a reference to Oz as “The Big Green Easy’’ and iridescent costumes for the witches that would not be out of place at a Mardi Gras parade.

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It’s a rousing and exuberant production that delivers a dose of irreverent fun — some of it at the expense of its fabled progenitor — while tapping into the qualities that have given “The Wiz’’ itself an enduring appeal. The production also reminds us why “The Wiz’’ can’t be classified as a great musical. William F. Brown’s book for “The Wiz’’ is too scattershot for that, with narrative shortcuts that keep the stage version from building the momentum and suspense of the classic 1939 film. The 1970s origins of “The Wiz’’ are also all too evident at times.

But, as performed on Baron E. Pugh’s two-tier set by a peppy eight-piece band led by music director Allyssa Jones, the score by Charlie Smalls is a treat, from well-known toe-tappers like “Ease on Down the Road’’ to quiet gems like “The Feeling We Once Had,’’ gloriously sung by Carolyn Saxon as Aunt Em. Reappearing near the end of the show, this time portraying Glinda, Saxon again induces shivers with performances of “A Rested Body Is a Rested Mind’’ and “Believe in Yourself.’’

Salome Smith, one of several graduates of Boston Conservatory at Berklee in the cast, is charming as Dorothy, and seemed to grow in confidence as the performance went on. Yewande Odetoyinbo’s cigar-chomping Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, needs to generate more force in order for her big number, “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,’’ to land with the impact it should (and did, in Blige’s TV performance).

There are several familiar and welcome performers on hand, including Davron S. Monroe as the Wiz, the vibrant Elle Borders as the Scarecrow, and the ever-versatile Brandon G. Green (“An Octoroon’’) as the Cowardly Lion. The charismatic Monroe commands the stage from the moment he materializes with the sneering “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard.’’ Green makes the Lion funny and endearing, as he must be, from the bellicose boasting of his solo on “Mean Ole Lion’’ to the moment when that boasting turns to whimpering and the Lion is revealed as a scaredy-cat.

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Steven Martin is superb as Tinman, toting a saxophone that is shaped like an axe handle at one end and bringing the verve of the newly liberated to his rendition of “Slide Some Oil to Me.’’ The versatile and hard-working ensemble includes Damon Singletary (who also plays Uncle Henry), Soneka Anderson, Juanita Pearl, Pier Lamia Porter, and Lance-Patrick Strickland.

Watching “The Wiz,’’ one is struck again by the nearly infinite adaptability of L. Frank Baum’s original 1900 novel, which, along with the movie, inspired the blockbuster musical “Wicked,’’ now in its 15th year on Broadway, having passed the 6,000-performance mark. A century before “Wicked’’ opened, back in 1903, a three-act musical adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz’’ opened on Broadway, where it ran for nearly 300 performances. The musical’s book and lyrics were supplied by none other than Baum himself. From the start, he clearly knew the theatrical possibilities of his tale.

THE WIZ

Book by William F. Brown. Music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls. Directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Music director, Allyssa Jones. Choreography, Jean Appolon. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through July 1. Tickets from $25, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin