By JOHN DeMERS
The Good Book has that whole business about the first being last and the last being first. So I couldn’t help thinking about the Bible when my first encounter with Houston’s Ensemble Theatre turned out to be the last show of their season, that tuneful revival meeting called The Wiz. Then again, considering the push under way to sell subscriptions to their new season and the churchy exhortation to “Just Bring One More,” the last being first was definitely a reality as well.
In the African-American community, the secular links to “religious music” are more than fanciful. The oldest “Negro spirituals,” with their telltale “call and response” structure, were born among the slaves in fields across the Deep South – and perhaps, before that, drew infectious island rhythms from the Caribbean much as a hurricane draws strength from crossing warm waters. Over time, these structures made it first into organized churches after emancipation and finally into the popular African-American culture by way of rhythm and blues. With the huge impact of R&B on early rock, it became possible to say that all of us who love American music learned to do so through Negro spirituals.
And yes, this has everything to do with The Wiz – the “black version” of The Wizard of Oz. Nearly all the fundamentals of L. Frank Baum’s classic story were intact in the musical that first wowed Broadway in 1975, the year before a Houstonian named George Hawkins founded Ensemble Theatre “to preserve African-American artistic expression and to enlighten, entertain and enrich a diverse community.” The show was a huge hit, spinning off a movie from the appropriate partnership of Motown and Universal Pictures.
If the film starred the likes of Diana Ross as Dorothy and Lena Horne as the Good Witch, it also starred a single performer much on the minds of those in the recent Ensemble audience. Michael Jackson played the Scarecrow, and Ensemble’s production of The Wiz opened just as Jackson’s death was stealing all the headlines and airtime day after day. Every dance move the Scarecrow did onstage in Houston was of necessity compared and contrasted with the moves Jackson made part of every American’s pop culture.
The Ensemble show was, in a word, terrific, squeezing maximum impact out of the intimate theater with the rather small stage. At times, the show took over playing spaces along the sides of the audience, a perfect example of necessity mothering not only invention but impact. It felt good to be in the center of the action, even when it meant turning your head this way and that to keep up.
As it does fairly often, Ensemble mounted a cast of local performers burnished by several significant imports. First among the latter was director and choreographer Patdro Harris, who has helmed musicals and dramatic works in all sections of the country from his current home in Atlanta. The other most delightful visitor was the poor guy who had to fill Jackson’s dancing shoes, Gary E. Vincent of Harlem, with an impressive list of soul-and-reggae-tinged stage credits ranging from Sophisticated Ladies to Once on This Island. Probably no one still alive can move the way Michael Jackson did, but in terms of glide, in terms of song and dance, and in terms of stage charisma, Vincent was a Scarecrow we will never forget.
This is not to slight the locals. Through much of this production, Melanie Finley as Dorothy was given a little less than enough to do. She is presented as a shy girl from Kansas, of course, and it’s safe to say she was that, all the while participating in group activities like the super-catchy “Ease on Down the Road” where “We’re Off to See the Wizard” used to be.” Both songs, it turns out, are equal show stoppers. But Finley finally became a show stopper one herself in The Wiz’s final moments, belting her way through the soulful, unexpected barnburner titled simply “Home.”
Also earning excited applausewere Tommie Harper as a Tin Man every bit as loveable as Jack Haley in the 1939 movie and Anthony Boggess-Glover as the Cowardly Lion. Unlike Bert Lahr in the classic, Boggess-Glover got to weave in a lot more “street” – from his attraction/addiction to the poppies set out by the Wicked Witch to his weakness for the ladies. He was wonderful. And let’s not forget Shaunyce Omar as that oh-so-wicked one, known in The Wiz as Evillene. Her rendition of Act II’s opening rabble- rouser “No Bad News” was dead-on. That’s one way to say thanks for coming back from intermission.
Next season, after The Wiz was extended for an extra week, Ensemble is starting with Seven Guitars by prize-winning African-American playwright August Wilson, this one representing the 1940s portion of his Pittsburgh Cycle. The rest of the seasons takes in Christmas With Great Aunt by Thomas Melonson (whose The Man Who Saved New Orleans impressed many last year), American Menu by Don Wilson Glenn, Stick Fly by Lydia Diamond and the closing musical Five Guys Named Moe. This one features the songs of composer and saxophonist Louis Jordan, whose hits included “Early in the Morning,” “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?”
That musical will be last. Unless, of course, it turn out to be first.