‘Wiz’ Kids

“Ease on down the road” with the University’s own production of the famous ’70s musical “The Wiz.”

Stephanie Dickrell

This is not your mother’s “Wiz,” nor is it your grandfather’s “The Wizard of Oz.” In fact, forget that you’ve even heard of either one.

This is “The Wiz,” University of Minnesota-style. As Dorothy (Ivory Doublette) said, “Just wait till you get here.”

The wiz

WHEN: April 11-19, Friday and Saturday 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Stoll Thrust Theatre, Rarig Center, 330 21st Ave. South, Minneapolis
TICKETS: $12-$17 advance, $14-$19 door, 612-624-2345, www.theatre.umn.edu/thewiz

Before Dominic Taylor agreed to direct the musical, he set up a vision for how he wanted the show to be played. The real changes in the show come in the re-envisioning of the original musical.

Dorothy is not just lost in the Land of Oz; she’s a young University student trying to navigate her way through campus. Information technology students, known as “Gophers,” lead the way around a sprawling campus, instead of the linear yellow brick road. David Rue’s character, the Scarecrow, is given the nickname because he spends all his time in the library.

While the members of the cast admitted the changes struck them as weird at first, they’ve grown to understand it.

“I think that everyone has embraced it in some way because it is the University of Minnesota’s production,” Taylor said. “(The cast is) making it new for themselves.”

In a state synonymous with Norwegians and hotdish, performing “The Wiz,” a ’70s musical famous for its all-black cast, may not be the first musical to come to mind. While some championed the idea because it brings “diversity” to the University Theatre’s performance schedule, some were confused, others offended.

A town hall meeting was held to discuss the show and to explain Taylor’s vision. People came to voice their opinions – would this be an all-black show? Should it be? Doublette, a junior theater major, and David Rue, a freshman journalism and musical theater major who plays the scarecrow, just showed up to find out when rehearsals were and didn’t realize what the big deal was.

“I was just hoping they were casting white people,” Nathan Shrake said, a sophomore musical theater major who was cast as the cowardly lion.

The rehearsal blog for the show has been abuzz with comments about the issue, but the cast and the director seemed ready to drop the issue, insisting that people should see the show for themselves.

When he was first asked to direct the show, Taylor didn’t even think that race or diversity would be an issue.

“I wanted to put a show on that would reflect the University of Minnesota population,” Taylor said. “It’s not multiethnic because I’m kind,” that was just how everything worked out.

When auditioning, Taylor said, they were looking for the talent, the voice, the moves, the acting. He decided he would not go outside of the auditioning pool to cast the show. In other words, they weren’t going to go out seeking a specific skin color or look for a part – they were going to make a show from whoever showed up on audition day.

For example, if a woman with a tenor voice that would have fit well with Dorothy´s voice for an important duet, Taylor said, the lion would have been a woman. There was no set way that he was going to cast the show.

The result, for those who are counting: a black Dorothy, a black Scarecrow, a black female Tin Man (who’s called the Tin One in this production), a Caucasian cowardly lion, and a black Good Witch of the North.

Taylor comes to the show with an outsider’s perspective. He’s new to the University, coming in September after spending years working with professionals in New York.

“He’s got a lot to prove,” Doublette said, because “The Wiz” will be his first show in the Twin Cities.

Taylor said he’s probably more demanding than the students are usually used to.

“I don’t come into a show thinking, ‘Oh I’m going to make an okay show,’ ” he said. “I’m going to make the best show Minnesota has ever seen.”

“He told us, in 10 years, I want people to know you were in ‘The Wiz,’ ” said Alicia Dansby, a theater and elementary education senior who’s playing Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North.

The show also had practical challenges to deal with, like juggling a full class load and getting actors to sing and dance, or dancers to act and sing.

Lynn Suemitsu, who plays the Tin One and is a freshman dance major, said she was drawn to the show for the dancing, hoping to be in the chorus, not expecting to get a main role. Ivory Doublette, who plays Dorothy, was in it for the music, and said she just stumbled upon acting.

For all the challenges, they’re having fun doing it.

If the 7 to 11 p.m. rehearsals every night weren’t enough, the cast hangs out outside rehearsal to watch “Sweeney Todd,” eat chicken wings, go to Applebee’s and sing to people on the street to get them to come see the show. Doublette said she had problems with “laughing attacks.”

Shrake agreed. “I haven’t laughed as much as I’ve before in this show.”