Malik Muhammad

The Wiz at the Ritz Theatre Company

While many in South Jersey lamented not seeing some individuals with no heart, no brain and no guts wearing green this weekend, The Ritz Theatre Company provided an outlet. They treated audiences to a rhythm and blues infused extravaganza down the Yellow Brick Road and into the Emerald City compliments of The Wiz. Your correspondent attended the November 9th performance. Kyrus Keenan Westcott directed.

L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz inspired this musical. It’s unlikely that Baum anticipated the story presented as a dance extravaganza accompanied by the funky soul music of the 1970s. William F. Brown’s and Charlie Smalls’ concept worked, however. Perhaps the Hamilton of its day, The Wiz premiered in 1974 with an all African American cast.

 The Wiz described an amazing journey. Following an argument with her Aunt Em (played by Danielle Harley-Scott), Dorothy (played by Olivia West) longed to escape from Kansas. A wind storm then came through town transporting her to a place called Oz. Upon arrival, Dorothy then longed to return to her Kansas home. A group of Munchkins suggested she visit the Emerald City and ask The Wiz (Darryl Thompson, Jr.) for advice.

While traveling along the Yellow Brick Road she encountered a trio of interesting characters. They included a Scarecrow (Kyle Smith), a Tin Man (Malik Muhammad) and a Lion (Craig Bazan). As these individuals also needed The Wiz’s assistance with their problems, they accompanied her. Upon meeting him, he offered to help, but on the condition they first kill Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. (Danielle Harley-Scott) The four companions’ journey had only just begun.

Devon Sinclair performed exceptional choreography for this show. The mesmerizing dance sequences included groups of Tornados, Monkeys, Poppies as well as other members of the cast. Mr. Sinclair arranged stellar moves for these entertaining scenes. The ensemble impressed by executing them so well.

Olivia West’s acting made Dorothy a very easy character with whom to empathize. Ms. West accentuated this trait through her singing. She delivered moving numbers such as “Soon as I Get Home” and the “Finale” beautifully. Her duet with the Lion (Craig Bazan) on “Be a Lion” was also very touching. The performer showed the same vocal proficiency when singing upbeat numbers such as the iconic “Ease on Down the Road.”

Kyle Smith approached the role of the Scarecrow with a lot of intelligence. His raggedy costume (designed by Yu’seph Cornish) made his character appear very authentic. Mr. Smith added further realism to the role with the way he wobbled while walking. He also sang a marvelous rendition of “Born on the Day Before Yesterday.”

Malik Muhammad put his heart into playing the Tin Man. Mr. Muhammad performed fantastic dance moves. He impressed by doing so in such an elaborate costume. The sparkles he wore in his beard complimented it very well. The axe he carried seemed symbolic of the outstanding vocal chops he delivered all evening. His warm voice well suited “Slide Some Oil to Me” and “What Would I Do if I Could Feel.”

Craig Bazan showed a lot of courage taking on the role of the Lion. In addition to strong dancing and vocal skills, Mr. Bazan displayed a strong aptitude for comedy. He played a hysterical scene when enticed by the Poppies. His delivery on the ironically titled “Mean Ole Lion” made the song much more comical.

The title of “The Wiz” would well suit Darryl Thompson, Jr. even better than the character he played. Once again Mr. Thompson, Jr. showcased the wizardry of his voice for theatre fans. Mr. Thompson, Jr. sang an inspirational version of “Believe in Yourself.” He also performed “Meet the Wizard” so powerfully that it would’ve have been just as easy to hear him without a microphone.

 1970s Oz experienced a bigger witch infestation problem than Salem did during the late seventeenth century. All three of Oz’s enchantresses put the audience under a spell. They achieved it through their vocal charms. Siiyara Nelson played Addaperle, April Johnson performed Glinda, and Danielle Harley-Scott took on the role of Evillene.

The ensemble included performers: April Johnson, John Clark, Terrance T Hart, Dhameer Kennedy, Shakeer Hood, Rafi Mills, Kiara Johnson, Zoe Holmes, Melanie Camille, Breyona Coleman and Mikaela Rada.

The production team comprised: Director Kyrus Keenan Westcott, Vocal Director Michelle Foster, Costume Designer Yu’seph Cornish, Sound Designer Matthew Gallagher and Set and Light Designer Chris Miller.

Director Kyrus Keenan Westcott wrote in the playbill:

 …I don’t want you to think of this as “the black version of The Wizard of Oz.” I think this story and these characters and this music deserve so much more than that notion. While it does tell the story through the eyes and musicality of African Americans, it speaks a universal language that everybody can enjoy.

That’s so true. A tale of someone struggling to overcome obstacles on a quest to find “home” is one that all people can understand. The Wiz’s powerful message of believing in one’s self resonates with everyone.

The Wiz works its magic through November 24th. After that, it’s back to Kansas for the Ritz Theatre Company; well, make that Haddon Township’s Arts District.

Big Fish at the Ritz Theatre Company

“Be the hero of your story,” Edward Bloom (played by Chris Monaco) told his son Young Will (Nicky Intrieri). Edward had quite a tale to tell. It included a witch (Rachel Klien), a mermaid (Lauren Bristow) and a giant (Jared Paxson) along with some memorable human characters; one of whom suffered from lycanthropy (Anthony Joseph Magnotta). Big Fish followed this fabulous fabulist of a father as his son Will (Frankie Rowles) endeavored to discover the man behind the myths. Director Matt Reher along with the cast and crew at the Ritz Theatre took the audience along this magical journey. I attended the May 8th performance.

At the beginning, playwright John August and songwriter Andrew Lippa gave the audience a sense of the evening they could expect. The “Be the Hero” track included a section where Edward Bloom described his unconventional approach to fishing. Calling it the “Alabama Stomp,” Mr. Monaco led the ensemble through a percussive dance routine. Fish leapt out of the water in response to it.

It’s quite a challenge to dance and sing at the same time. Big Fish added a tricky third element by requiring performers to catch large fish thrown from off stage. The cast executed this task without flaw.

The Ritz provided extraordinary atmospherics for this show. In the prelude to the “I Know What You Want” number, Technical Director Connor Profitt transformed the theatre into an eerie swamp. As Edward and his friends searched for the witch, the cricket sounds, dim lighting and smoke made it easy for me to suspend my disbelief.

Lauren Bristow’s solo dancing contained excellent choreography by Devon Sinclair. Mr. Sinclair also coordinated more elaborate routines that included the cast and ensemble; the best comprised the witch’s “I Know What You Want”, “Little Lamb from Alabama” and “Closer to Her.”

Aside from the fantastical elements, Big Fish contained a very “human” story. Edward (Chris Monaco) liked to relate the events of his life through fictitious tales. He described his and his wife Sandra’s (Megan Ruggles) courtship in hyper-romantic terms; as shown through the “Closer to Her” and “Daffodils” numbers. He entertained his son Young Will (Nicky Intrieri) with stories containing a message. An encounter with a witch (Rachel Klein) taught him not to fear death. A mermaid (Lauren Bristow) showed him that love changes a person.

Young Will’s frustration with his father’s tale telling became hostile when he reached adulthood. His wife Josephine (Jamie Talamo) encouraged him to seek the lessons hidden in Edward’s stories. Upon receiving news of his father’s illness, Will (Frankie Rowles) sought to traverse the metaphorical river between them. When Will discovered that his father co-signed a mortgage for his high school sweetheart’s (Jenny Hill played by Colleen Murphy) home, he confronted his father.

Chris Monaco made his Ritz Mainstage debut in the lead role. He captured the upbeat nature of Edward’s personality along with his frustration with Will’s focus on “truth.” Mr. Monaco showed the depth of the character’s affection for Sandra in his scenes with Mrs. Ruggles. And most important: the man could tell a story.

Frankie Rowles played an excellent antagonist to Mr. Monaco. He concretized Will’s own annoyance with his father and his “tall tales.” Mr. Rowles conveyed that sentiment in song through a powerful rendition of “Stranger.” Without giving away spoilers, I will write that the performer enacted his character’s change in a believable fashion.

Big Fish contained beautiful music. Mr. Monaco performed a pining rendition of “Time Stops.” Megan Ruggles and members of the ensemble performed the quick dance moves from “Little Lamb from Alabama” in slow motion. Ms. Ruggles bashful vocals complimented the longing in Mr. Monaco’s.

Act One ended with “Daffodils.” The title referred to Sandra’s favorite flower. Mr. Monaco’s character proceeded to remove one-at-a-time from a bag while serenading Ms. Ruggles. The two performers captured the essence of the following exchange in song.

Sandra: You don’t even know me.

Will: I have the rest of my life to find out.  

Ms. Ruggles delivered a heart rending version of “I Don’t Need a Roof.” To add to the song’s mood, she cradled Mr. Monaco in her lap as she sang. Her performance made this scene the most touching moment of the show. With so many touching moments in Big Fish, this is a noteworthy achievement.

Moira Miller added superb costuming to this production. It enhanced the visual spectacle. From the country folk of Ashton, Alabama to the mystical figures the attire reflected each character’s personality.

Will’s clothing showed the iconoclastic nature of the man underneath it. He wore a jacket and tie to his son’s wedding reception along with a pair of khakis. His son dressed in a traditional suit. The attire displayed the variance in the two characters’ personalities.

The costumes the witch, the mermaid and the giant wore showed remarkable creativity. The witch’s included a pattern that resembled the surface of a cobra’s skin. The gold texture on the ringmaster (Amos Calloway played by Anthony Joseph Magnotta) costume glittered under the lights.

Ritz Big Fish 05

Chris Monaco and Ensemble

In homage to Edward’s fondness for hyperbole, I write that Big Fish contained enough props to fit in a small warehouse. While a bit of an exaggeration, it’s absolute fact that Melissa Harnois did an excellent work managing all these items. As the set (designed by William Bryant) included Edward’s attic, it contained a lot of miscellany.

Malik Muhammad, AJ Love, Chantel Cumberbatch and Meredith Meghan completed the ensemble.

Hillary Kurtz executed Chris Miller’s lighting design without flaw. Matthew Gallagher managed the sound design. Brian Bacon served as Musical Director.

With a great message, fantastical characters and superb musical numbers, Big Fish made for one entertaining evening of theatre going. Director Matt Reher wrote: Truth is not the same as fact. Regarding my assessment of Big Fish, they are.

Big Fish runs through May 19th at the Ritz Theatre Company.