The Kelly Critics is a joint program of the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh CLO's Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musicals, in which students at Kelly schools review musicals at other Kelly schools.
Dorothy’s glittering Vans keep her in a fantastic place, where the witches catch a bus and the yellow bricks dance, where the music lifts one’s spirits and the wardrobe twinkles. This is Penn Hills’ “The Wiz.”
Melissa Gess, senior at Penn Hills, prepares the audience for the show. She announces she is Addaperle, Good Witch of the North. But before she opens her mouth, I can tell from her colorful and ritzy get-up that the next three hours will be full of surprises.
Aunt Em, played by Faith Williams, sweeps her Kansas home’s porch. Suddenly, a shrill voice -- “Toto, Toto!?” -- is followed by Dorothy running on stage. After a touching solo from Dorothy’s aunt, the story we know starts its course. We get a taste of the tact and creativity the stage crew utilized to make this production as magical as possible. Dancers use dark sheets to create the illusion of a tornado, as they masterfully spin Dorothy and her home around. Stage lights grow and shrink in intensity, the music hastens with the dancing and Dorothy’s panicked face sets the mood.
Senior Maurice Epps’ Scarecrow is found on a small box platform, splattered with graffiti, imprisoned by his ignorance. When Dorothy sets him free he smiles, and the audience can not resist smiling back. Epps bravely embodies a scarecrow’s lame movements. He was not afraid to roll, slide or fall across the stage. Throughout the play he adamantly remains the clumsy yet loveable Scarecrow. What I, and many others, took home after the production was that Maurice Epps, was charming.
Another hilarious appearance was that of the Munchkins, who came out cackling in office chairs. They had an excellent range of choreography from flapper kicks to cross-betweens. Watching them roll around the stage was amusing enough to last the entirety of the show, and thankfully, there was more to come.
Junior Adam Rayan played the Tinman. His entrance was simple enough. The stage crew’s lighting brought him, Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the yellow brick road dancers out of the darkness. And his voice thundered out the Tinman’s solo, “If I Could Feel.”Here I noticed the band’s scintillating rhythm which was the heartbeat of the musical. Rayan’s sincere love of performing could be heard in his voice and seen in his backflips. He was an unstoppable force. Even after his hit solo the audience watched as he stayed characteristically stiff. His performance received tremendous applause, howls, and wolf whistles. For a metalman with no heart, he surely stole the audiences’.
Let us not forget the heroic road, you know, the one made of yellow bricks. Dancers personified the brick road while placing shining yellow boxes for the cast to “walk” on. However at times the large stage worked against the props. One would believe such space would promote stage decorations, instead it emphasized the stage’s emptiness. Lulls and gaps were remedied by tone-setting lights. Innovative designs known as “garbage art,” like Dorothy’s roof made of can lids, could not mask the stage’s emptiness.
Space was filled with characters instead of decorations as the story progressed. Hence this imperfection progressively resolved itself. The “Brand New Day” scene was remarkable. The dancers were numerous and the choreography advanced and each actor beamed from ear to ear. This euphoric ensemble song and dance was unforgettable.
Sometimes the humorous content was exclusively for adults. Mostly though, the approachable shtick was a breath of fresh air for all ages. The fallen king of the jungle, played by senior Michael DelleFemine, mastered both adult and ageless comedy. DelleFemine represented the Lion with such charisma that even his most cowardly moments could be mistaken for humor.
Then there’s the Wiz, played by junior Julius Ralph. The set had his giant head, but luckily it was mute, so the audience got to relish Ralph’s powerhouse vocals with no interruption.
Recurring audience members of Penn Hills’ musicals will remember Savannah Wiggins as a minor lead in last year’s “All Shook Up.” Now this junior leads as Dorothy; her performance this year, like last, is jaw dropping. My heart dropped and hands rose when the musical came to a close. Dorothy found Toto, back in Kansas, and the story ended as it began. However, if it were not Wiggins who clicked her slippers three times, “The Wiz” would not have the same impact. She has an immense presence that captivates the crowd. She acts bashfully to bravely with honest grace. Her first solo, “Soon As I Get Home,” was breathtaking. Wiggin’s voice invigorates the large theatre with its intense and uplifting tone: the perfect Dorothy.
Penn Hills’ “The Wiz”: where the leads conquer their inhibitions and Dorothy makes it home. Where there is an immediate standing ovation and tears roll down the viewers’ cheeks. It was a hard hitting musical that you have to see to believe, and even then, it feels like a dream.
Reviews are edited by senior theater critic Christopher Rawson. For more high school musicals coverage, go to http://www.post-gazette.com/ae/theater-dance/ and scroll down.