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Confession: I never saw the movie of The Wiz, only the decades-ago Broadway musical. But as soon as Nicholas Leichter’s The Whiz: Obamaland starts, I sense that I’m in the minority and that everyone else sitting in the historic Henry Street Theater at the Abrons Arts Center has seen the movie (Diana Ross! Michael Jackson! Nipsey Russell!) at least 10 times as well as being a Nicholas Leichter groupie and a Monstah Black fan.

I often laugh when others laugh and applaud when they applaud, but sometimes they laugh with a knowing delight that leaves me behind. And it bothers me a little that in conceiving this take on The Wizard of Oz, choreographer Leichter and his co-director and composer Black seem to have presumed on that knowledge. They’re not, like Doug Elkins and David Parker—with their clever re-imaginings of, respectively, The Sound of Music and Annie Get Your Gun— trying to anchor the dancing to the actual plot or the numbers in it.

John Jasperse's "Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat-Out Lies"
Yi-Chun Wu
John Jasperse's "Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat-Out Lies"
Monstah Black in Nicholas Leichter's "The Whiz: Obamaland"
Andrew Smrz
Monstah Black in Nicholas Leichter's "The Whiz: Obamaland"

Details

John Jasperse Company
Joyce Theater
June 16 through 19

Nicholas Leichter Dance
Abrons Arts Center
June 16 through 19

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Instead, Leichter and Black’s 90-minute work riffs off the ambience, moods, and style of The Wiz (a musical notable back in the 1970s for reconfiguring L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz as an urban African American fable). Three of the songs in The Whizare from the soundtrack of the 1978 film; some have been written or adapted by Black, and some are by other composers and artists. But as the show moves along, it drops little details for Wizaddicts to pick up. We all laugh when Black totters in on improbably constructed silver platform shoes (he’s a charming comedian as well as a wonderful singer), and the others join him in silver sneakers, but if you know that one evil witch was melted down to her silver footgear (did I Google that right?), you’ll laugh in a different way.

Color is a big deal in the kingdoms of Oz; its capital, The Emerald City, and satellite states form a rainbow coalition. Happy laughter greets Black’s remarking, as he rips off a green wig, that green is so over, and everyone had better go red. I can imagine that Stephanie Liapis, in her eloquent solo near the end (to Black’s adaptation of “Is this what feeling gets”), is channeling Dorothy in her loved-Oz-gotta-go moment. Except that the red shoes (sorry, ruby slippers) that then mysteriously appear on stage are donned by Leichter after his final solo to the song “Home.” Is he the one leaving the fantasy world? And is it Obamaland he’s glad to get back to? Or was he there all along? The only hint we get that our President is involved is part of his inaugural speech that, overwhelmed by music, functions as an overture.

The performers in this vivid, hyperactive revue, adrift in funk and jazz and club dancing, are wonderful, and the number of costume changes they have to make renders them practically heroic. Black’s many outrageous outfits seem to allude to several characters and/or landscapes at once (hairy epaulets = Lion?). He sings—with, without, and against his recorded score. So, occasionally, do Leichter and Aaron Draper, and in one of the piece’s rare quiet moments, Leichter plays Black’s lovely, gently resigned “Chasing Pavements” on a piano at the back, and the three of them sing the words.

The dancing is a blend of styles. In the opening number, Liapis, Lauren Basco, Keon Thoulouis, and Wendell Cooper cling together, lift one another, and swirl into evolving, groupings in a fluent postmodern-dance way. Duetting side by side, Leichter and Liapis begin what looks like the first ballet exercise that a dancer might do in class after leaving the barre. But they swing one leg up with a flexed foot and a rocking torso, and get hipper as they go. The first few group numbers hit the stage with panache. The dancers’ feet keep stepping, strutting skidding, hopping. Their hips and shoulders are mobile. Leichter’s choreography nicely blends crisp rhythms and sudden stops with a lazy, seductive ease. You think you could watch people doing this all night.

But after a few jolts of the heady stuff, I begin to wish for things that Leichter is forgoing. Almost all the group dances are executed in unison, with dancers neatly spaced out and facing front. A typical chorus-line formation. Leichter has skills beyond this. What’s the matter with dancers moving in counterpoint, facing different directions, and traveling more out of the spot they started in? The choreography could still have the in-your-face force of a routine. The costumes are imaginatively gaudy, Erik C. Bruce’s dazzling lighting makes colored beams spin around the stage floor and penetrate the audience, but long before the final and most imaginatively constructed group dance, I’m not as happy as I was initially about watching dancers I love, because they’re selling the same—or almost the same—number several times over.

Solo acts, often mysterious ones, provide variety. Draper, wearing floppy red trunks, prizefights the air; Cooper enters the theater through a side door (as Black often does) and marches onstage disguised in a very short, tight print outfit, heels, and a black cap, and dances with remarkable dug-in volatility. Dawn Robinson, looking great in a sexy black gown, her hair afro-ed dramatically, plays the diva, while Draper cools her with variously sized electric fans. Oddest of all, singer-performance artist Yozmit makes a single appearance, swathed in black and carried on an invisible helper’s shoulders. As he/she sings in a powerful voice (Yozmit has studied Korean pansori singing), the black cloth is whisked away, a white skirt falls from above and ends up around her/his ankles, and the final attire is a corset, tights, and a gold belt. I doubt that this is Glinda the Good, but you never know.

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